By J.J. Robinson
MALE (Reuters) - Former Maldivian leader Mohamed Nasheed will face a run-off election on September 28 after his win in the presidential poll ended without a majority, provisional results showed on Sunday, nearly 20 months after his removal ignited months of unrest.
Nasheed, the Maldives' first democratically elected president, was forced from office in February 2012 in what his supporters call a coup. The turmoil tarnished the Indian Ocean archipelago's image as a tropical holiday paradise.
Nasheed, running against three rivals, had secured 45.45 percent of the total polled, according to the early results, Election Commissioner Fuwad Thowfeek told reporters.
He missed a required majority of 50 percent, as the votes were split among the other three contenders.
Nasheed's main rival, Abdulla Yameen, a half-brother of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled for 30 years and was considered a dictator by opponents and rights groups, polled 25.35 percent, the preliminary results showed.
Gasim Ibrahim, a resort tycoon, media business owner and formerly a finance minister under Gayoom, secured 24.07 percent, while Nasheed's successor and incumbent leader Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik performed the worst, with just 5.13 percent.
Nasheed and Yameen will face each other in a run-off election on September 28, the election commissioner confirmed.
The election commission will release final results of the first round on September 14, Thowfeek said.
"Any boxes needed to be recounted will be recounted within this time and if required, make adjustments. Counting will be done in the presence of observers and representatives of candidates," he said.
Transparency Maldives, which deployed 400 observers to monitor the poll, said its was "largely peaceful", except for a few minor counting disputes.
"The incidents that have happened on election day will not have a material impact on the outcome," said Aiman Rasheed, an official of Transparency Maldives.
RUN-OFF FOR SECOND TIME
Nasheed unseated Gayoom in a run-off election in 2008.
Critical challenges facing the next president include a rise in Islamist ideology, human rights abuses and lack of investor confidence after Waheed's government cancelled the country's biggest foreign investment project with India's GMR Infrastructure .
Mohamed Aslam, a senior member of Nasheed's Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and a former minister of housing and environment, said his party did not get the votes it expected in Male, the capital, and one of Nasheed's strongholds.
Analysts and human rights defenders say the Maldives has been in limbo since Nasheed's resignation, prompting a voter turnout of 88 percent, up from 85 percent in the 2008 vote.
"I've been waiting 19 months for this day. So I got here as early as I could. It's my way of standing up against the coup," said voter Ismail Shiyaz, 39, a supporter of Nasheed.
Others, like Rooya Hussain, were less certain.
"I don't think any of these candidates are suitable," she said. "However, I cast a valid vote for one of them. Let's see if this brings any change for the better."
Nasheed said earlier he had support in the ranks of the military and police, expressing confidence he would get half the vote to win in the first round.
"Voting today is significant because we are going to establish a legitimate government," Nasheed said soon after he voted.
Nasheed was forced to resign in 2012 after mutinying police and military forces armed opposition demonstrators and gave him an ultimatum.
His removal sparked unruly protests by his supporters and a heavy-handed police crackdown, pushing the country into crisis. A Commonwealth-backed commission of inquiry later concluded that his removal did not constitute a coup.
The Maldives, a sultanate for almost nine centuries before becoming a British protectorate, held its first fully democratic
vote in 2008 with Nasheed defeating Gayoom, an autocrat who was then Asia's longest-serving leader.
(Additional reporting and writing by Shihar Aneez in Colombo; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)