* Nasheed leads with votes counted from 274 boxes out of 470
* President forced out in 2012
* If no outright winner, run-off is scheduled for Sept. 28 (Adds provisional results, details, commission comment)
By J.J. Robinson
MALE, Sept 7 (Reuters) - Partial presidential election results in the Maldives showed Mohamed Nasheed leading on Saturday, nearly 20 months after his removal from power ignited months of sometimes violent unrest.
Nasheed, Maldives' first democratically-elected president, was forced from office in February 2012 in what his supporters say was a coup. The turmoil tarnished the Indian Ocean archipelago's image as a tropical holiday paradise.
Nasheed was leading with 45 percent of 274 ballot boxes counted out of the total 470 at 1453 GMT, followed by his main rival Abdulla Yameen with 25 percent, state-run Television Maldives said.
The votes so far counted were from small islands across the archipelago. Nasheed's strongholds, the capital Male and the city of Addu, were still being counted.
Provisional results of all 470 ballot boxes are expected to be released by 1800 GMT, election commission officials said.
"Voting today is significant because we are going to establish a legitimate government," Nasheed said early in the day outside the polling centre where he cast his ballot.
He is running against three rivals, including Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik, who succeeded him as president.
Yameen is a half-brother of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled for 30 years and was considered a dictator by opponents and rights groups.
"I hope to get through in the first round itself," Yameen told reporters.
Also on the ballot is Gasim Ibrahim, a resort tycoon, media business owner and former finance minister under Gayoom. Gasim and Wahid have 24 percent and 5 percent respectively of the votes counted.
Officials at the Election Commission said turnout could be around 80 percent, compared with 85 percent in 2008 polls.
"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."
Election commissioner Fuad Thowfeek said there had been "no serious issues" except delays caused by long queues at some polling stations and campaigning during the polling.
Before the polling ended, Transparency Maldives, which deployed 400 observers for poll monitoring, said the conduct of the election was satisfactory.
FORCING A RUN-OFF
Nasheed said he now had support in the ranks of the military and police and expressed confidence he would secure 50 percent of the vote to win in the first round. A split vote would force a run-off on Sept. 28.
Nasheed was forced to resign in February 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.
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 are among critical challenges the new president will face.
The Maldives, a sultanate for almost nine centuries before becoming a British protectorate, held its first fully democratic
polls 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 Andrew Roche)