BLANTYRE - Hours after President Joyce Banda declared this week's election "null and void", Malawi's high court issued an injunction stopping her decision to annull the poll.
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.
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."
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.
European Union election observers urged "political parties, supporters and other stakeholders to remain calm" and allow the electoral commission "to finalise its task on tabulation and announcement of results."
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 lead 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."
Darling of the West
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 remained 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 ten 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?"
Msonda said the electoral process had been "marred by a lot of irregularities on vote tabulation. We have won this election, otherwise we demand a stop to the tabulation of the results until all anomalies are corrected," Msonda said.