Blantyre - Malawi's President Joyce Banda on Saturday declared this week's chaotic election “null and void” and called for a fresh vote, but the high court rejected the decision.
Banda, who has claimed there were “serious irregularities” with the poll, declared fresh elections should be held within 90 days but said she would not stand as a candidate, to “give Malawians a free and fair” election.
But hours after her announcement, Malawi's high court issued an injunction preventing the president from annulling the poll.
The injunction was granted after a lawyer for the Malawi Electoral Commission applied to the court to quash Banda's decision, asking whether she had any “mandate, constitutional or statutory to interfere with electoral process”.
The president had previously said that she was annulling the poll using “powers conferred upon me from the constitution.”
Banda's main rival Peter Mutharika said the decision to annul the election was “illegal”.
“Nothing in the constitution gives the president powers to cancel an election,” said Mutharika, who partial results showed was well ahead of Banda in the polls. “This is clearly illegal, unconstitutional and not acceptable.”
There were chaotic scenes at the tally centre in Blantyre when word went around that the poll had been nullified, with police ordering a shutdown of the centre.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on all parties to refrain from violence, remain calm and “support fully” the Malawi Electoral Commission in completing its work.
Ban commended the Malawi people “for turning out in large numbers for the country's first tripartite elections”, his spokesperson said.
Preliminary observer statements indicated that the polling process was “generally consistent with regional and international standards” despite technical problems and fraud allegations, according to the UN chief.
European Union election observers echoed the call for calm.
Banda has alleged people had voted multiple times, ballots had been tampered with, presiding officers arrested, and the computerised voter counting system collapsed.
Her supporters have alleged that Mutharika - who is already facing pre-election treason charges - may be behind the irregularities.
With about a third of the votes counted, Mutharika, 74, had 42 percent of the vote, while Banda has 23 percent, according to preliminary results announced by the electoral commission late on Friday.
Mutharika is the brother of late president Bingu wa Mutharika, who died in office two years ago.
He allegedly attempted to conceal his brother's death by flying his body to South Africa in a bid to prevent then vice president Banda from coming to power as the constitution decreed.
That led to treason charges against him.
On Saturday he did not claim victory but said the “people have spoken and this was a free and credible election”.
“I hope the president abandons the path she has taken,” Mutharika said. “As citizens we should not take this country on the path of destruction and everyone should remain calm until results are announced.”
“Whoever has won should take over the government and start the process of rebuilding the country.”
After Mutharika's corruption-tainted eight-year rule, Banda was feted by the West as one of Africa's rare women leaders, even receiving a high profile visit from then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
But her government has since been ensnared in a $30 million government corruption scandal dubbed “Cashgate” that has seen foreign donors freeze badly needed aid.
That aid is likely to remain frozen as long as the current crisis continues.
Voting had been scheduled to take place on Tuesday, but was extended through to Thursday when delays of up to 10 hours prompted riots in the commercial capital Blantyre, where the army was deployed.
Banda's request for an audit was rebuffed by the country's electoral commission chief, who told AFP that despite problems with the electronic counting system, the tally was continuing manually.
Maxon Mbendera insisted the election was “valid” and said Banda's claim was caused by “desperation”.
Kenneth Msonda, a spokesman for Banda's People's Party, told AFP conceding defeat was not the issue. “Why concede defeat when anomalies have not been rectified?” - Sapa-AFP