By Ranga Sirilal
COLOMBO (Reuters) - The Maldives' Supreme Court on Monday postponed a presidential election run-off scheduled for September 28 to allow it to consider a challenge from a defeated first-round candidate, denting hopes of an end to months of political turmoil.
The candidate, Gasim Ibrahim, a tourism and media tycoon who was finance minister under long-time ruler Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, came third with 24.07 percent of votes in the first round on September 7, just behind Gayoom's half-brother Abdulla Yameen, on 25.35 percent.
The first round was won by ex-president Mohamed Nasheed, whose removal from power 20 months ago ignited months of unrest in the Indian Ocean archipelago. He secured 45.45 percent in the first round, just short of the 50 percent needed for outright victory, and his party promptly announced mass protests against the postponement.
Gasim's Jumhoory Party (JP) had asked the court to annul the first round result, alleging vote rigging.
"The Supreme Court orders the Elections Commission and other state institutions ... to postpone the second round of Presidential elections scheduled for September 28 until the Supreme Court decides in the case before it," the court said in its ruling.
Hamid Abdul Ghafoor, spokesman for Nasheed's Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), said the MDP would appeal.
"This is unconstitutional and people will not accept it ... we have already challenged it and the party's National Council approved a protest," he said by phone from Male. "We appeal to security forces to ensure the safety of the protesters."
Nasheed, who served for three years as the Maldives' first democratically elected president, was forced from office in February 2012 when mutinying police and soldiers armed opposition demonstrators and gave him an ultimatum.
Protests by his supporters were met with a heavy police crackdown that tarnished the Maldives' image as a tranquil holiday paradise. Analysts and human rights defenders say the islands have been in political and economic limbo ever since.
Critical challenges facing the next president include a rise in Islamist ideology, human rights abuses and a lack of investor confidence after the government cancelled the Maldives' biggest foreign investment project with India's GMR Infrastructure .
(Editing by Kevin Liffey)