MALE, October 28 – Voters in the Maldives went to the polls Tuesday to choose the country’s first-ever democratically elected president, in a run-off between Asia’s longest serving leader and a former political prisoner.,
President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the 71-year-old frontrunner, faces his toughest critic Mohamed "Anni" Nasheed, 41, after failing to win an outright victory in the first round on October 8.
The Maldives, a liberal Sunni Muslim nation of some 300,000 people, has never had multi-party elections before. Anyone publicly declaring an intention to seek high office used to be banished to an otherwise uninhabited island.
Gayoom’s change of heart came after anti-government protests erupted into riots in September 2003 following the death in custody of a young man held on a drug charge.
The unrest galvanized pro-democracy activists to form the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), whose founder Nasheed is challenging Gayoom for the right to lead the country, which has become a luxury tourism hotspot.
Nasheed has been in and out of jail, once being held for three straight years, and was described by Amnesty International as a "prisoner of conscience."
"Gayoom had the opportunity to gracefully bow out and allow the reforms to go ahead," Nasheed told AFP on Monday. "My appeal is for him to allow a peaceful transition."
Gayoom’s spokesman Mohammed Shareef said however the incumbent, who received 41 percent of the first round vote compared with Nasheed’s 25 percent, was confident of victory.
"Voting is brisk and over 150 people had voted here within the first one and a half hours," said Ahmed Athif, the officer in charge of one polling booth in Male.
Election officials marked the index finger of voters with indelible ink to prevent them from voting more than once.
Maldivian dissidents have likened Gayoom to Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe or Cuba’s Fidel Castro, but he has turned the Indian Ocean archipelago into the richest nation in South Asia per capita thanks to tourism and tuna fisheries.
"It is very wrong to compare me to those people," Gayoom told reporters at the start of the first round, adding he would "abide by the verdict" of the people should he lose.
He has survived at least three coup attempts since coming to power in 1978.
The most serious threat was in 1988 when a local businessman led an armed attack on Male with the help of Tamil mercenaries from neighbouring Sri Lanka.
The coup was put down with the help of Indian troops.
Security around Gayoom remains tight. In January, an islander tried to stab him with a kitchen knife.
No matter who wins Tuesday’s vote, the country will see sweeping political and economic changes.
Nasheed has promised to privatise state trading enterprises, cut state spending and turn the Gayoom-built 62-million-dollar presidential palace into a university.
Gayoom would have to implement a series of reform bills adopted by parliament, including the setting up of independent commissions to run the police, public service and the judiciary.
"There will be huge political changes in the coming months," an Asian diplomat said. "Public discontent can also rise because neither will be able to easily deliver on the goodies they have promised."
Despite its popularity as a holiday destination for the rich, the country is beset with corruption, a lack of housing and a serious drug problem said to affect one in three youngsters.
About 200 of the Maldives’ 1,192 tiny coral islands scattered across the equator are inhabited, while 85 islands have been turned into luxury resorts, some charging thousands of dollars a night.
However, local lawmaker Ibrahim Ismail said 40 percent of Maldivians still earned less than a dollar a day even though the country’s GDP per capita income was more than 2,200 dollars, the highest among South Asian nations.
About 209,000 people are eligible to vote on Tuesday, with some preliminary results expected overnight and the final outcome declared in five to six days.