Maldives goes to the polls

2008-10-08 10:18

Male - Islanders in the cramped city of Male and scores of far-flung atolls began voting on Wednesday in the first democratic presidential election in their tiny nation's history.

For many, the vote is seen as a referendum on President Mamoun Abdul Gayoom, Asia longest-serving ruler, who won six previous elections as the only candidate on the ballot.

Gayoom now faces five opponents, including a charismatic leader of the pro-democracy movement, Mohamed Nasheed, and a reform minded former attorney general, Hassan Saeed.

If no one wins an outright majority, the top two vote-getters will face off in a second election. Turnout is expected to be high among the nation's 208 000 registered voters, who have enthusiastically danced at campaign rallies and plastered campaign posters on the walls of their homes.

Whoever wins will inherit a stunningly beautiful country of 1 190 coral islands dotting the ocean southwest of India.

But the newly elected president will also confront a growing heroin problem, increasing fundamentalism in the Sunni Muslim nation and the looming threat that rising sea levels caused by global warming will wash the country away.

Many of the candidates are promising better health care for the country, increased development and stronger transport links between the islands.

The president's supporters say that his 30-year-rule turned a poor nation of fishermen into a tourist paradise and the economic success story of south Asia. His detractors accuse him of ruling as a dictator, violently suppressing dissent and amassing wealth for his friends and family.

Soon after polls opened more than hundred people were standing in a line in the pouring rains outside a school in Male used as a voting centre.

Some of the voters said this was the country's first meaningful election.

"This is the thing we have never seen and experienced," said Ibrahim Rasheed, 39, a businessman in Male.

Many said the time has come for a new leader.

"We need a change now. Thirty years is a very long time, the whole nation wants a change," said Abdullah Samad, 49 a businessman.

Opposition officials complained of widespread problems with voter registration and said in some atolls observers were not being allowed into the polling centres.

Mariya Didi, chairperson of the Maldivian Democratic Party, was herself unable to vote when she discovered that she and her 10 brothers and sisters were not in the voting list despite having registered.

Gayoom, who took power in 1978, began a government reform program in 2004 in the face of large-scale street protests and growing international pressure. A new constitution stripping much of the president's power, establishing independent courts and creating term limits was ratified in August.

Gayoom has appealed for a new five-year term, saying he needed more time to finish shepherding the transformation to democracy. His opponents say it is time for a change.