The Maldives Supreme Court said Thursday it would examine President Abdulla Yameen's petition to annul his September election defeat despite international pressure on the strongman leader to go quietly.
"The Supreme Court has decided to accept the constitutional dispute filed by President Yameen and it would be heard," the court said on Twitter, raising the prospect of fresh upheaval in the country's turbulent recent politics.
It later said a hearing will be held on Sunday at 1:00 pm (0800 GMT) in the tourist paradise Indian Ocean archipelago at the centre of a tussle for influence between India and China.
The main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), whose candidate won a landslide at the September 23 vote, said Yameen should respect the results and drop his spurious challenge.
"The Joint Opposition calls on Yameen to immediately withdraw this blatantly unsubstantiated case, and to step aside and to facilitate a peaceful and smooth transition," the MDP said in a statement.
Yameen, whose main political rivals were either in jail or in exile for the vote, was unexpectedly beaten by political lightweight Ibrahim Mohamed Solih with 58.4 percent of the vote.
The court announced the hearing date after meeting with the nation's chief elections commissioner Ahmed Shareef who had insisted that the vote was free and fair.
In the run-up to the election, the opposition had feared it would be rigged in favour of the incumbent as Solih was not allowed to campaign freely and was denied media coverage.
Yameen's Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) said it mounted the challenge because of complaints of irregularities it received from its constituencies.
"The party has been overwhelmed with numerous genuine concerns related to the elections, including serious allegations of vote rigging, fraud, malpractice and corruption," the PPM said in a statement.
- 'Printer intimidated' -
Local media reports said the company which printed ballot papers was under pressure to support Yameen's claim of vote rigging, but it had refused.
Printers have been offered bribes while others have been intimidated, the Avas.mv website reported.
Shareef told reporters in the capital Male that Yameen had called for an annulment of the results and a fresh election and he too was consulting lawyers ahead of Sunday's hearing.
The United States and the European Union had threatened sanctions if the vote was not free and fair and if Yameen, 59, did not accept the result.
Yameen had already conceded defeat and reluctantly said he would leave office on November 17, when his term ends.
But he has been publicly urging his supporters to challenge the results.
Yameen's lawyer Mohamed Saleem said Wednesday that the decision to file the challenge came after receiving and reviewing "numerous complaints" by Yameen's supporters.
"So in light of that, President Yameen decided that the challenge must be filed for the rights of his supporters," he added.
Hamid Abdul Ghafoor, the Colombo-based spokesman for the MDP, said that the legal challenge was "an attempt by Yameen to create unrest".