By J.J. Robinson
MALE (Reuters) - The Maldives' top court delayed holding the second round of the country's presidential poll yet again on Sunday, prolonging a political crisis that has sparked international criticism over the Indian Ocean state's repeated failure to hold free elections.
Mohamed Nasheed, the country's first democratically elected leader who first came to power in 2008 after 30 years of one-man rule, won the first round of voting on Saturday but failed to win a clear majority.
The run-off was scheduled to take place on Sunday but the Supreme Court has delayed it until Saturday, in line with demands from Nasheed's two biggest rivals.
This weekend's poll was the Maldives' third attempt to elect a new president in as many months, but the democratic process once again broke down amid bickering between political factions.
The delay makes it unclear who will actually be in charge of the country from Monday, when the incumbent steps down. It is yet another distraction for a country known more for its luxury beach resorts than its recent bouts of unrest.
Whoever wins will face a rise in Islamist ideology, human rights abuses and a lack of investor confidence. The political crisis has hit tourism, a vital source of earnings, and the Maldives has faced fuel shortages because it is unable to pay suppliers on time amid dwindling foreign exchange reserves.
"To delay second-round voting beyond the constitutional requirements for a new government by November 11 will create uncertainties that may destabilize the Maldives," the U.S. States Department said in a statement.
"It is unreasonable and unacceptable for parties to continue to demand changes to an agreed election date."
A September 7 vote was annulled based on a secret police report which found vote rigging while an October poll was halted by police after a Supreme Court ruling.
Nasheed, who was ousted from power last year in circumstances that his supporters say amounted to a coup, won 46.93 percent of the vote, the official results showed.
Nasheed's main opponent is Abdulla Yameen, a half-brother of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled the islands for 30 years and was considered a dictator by opponents and rights groups. Yameen won 29.72 percent of the vote, while resort tycoon Gasim Ibrahim, a finance minister under Gayoom, secured 23.34 percent.
(Writing by Shihar Aneez in Colombo; Editing by Matthias Williams nd Nick Macfie)