MALE, October 29 – A former political prisoner swept to victory in the Maldives’ first democratic presidential election, officials said Wednesday, unseating Asia’s longest-serving leader and sparking scenes of celebration.
Supporters of Mohamed "Anni" Nasheed hugged each other and drove around the capital of the Indian Ocean atoll nation from shortly after dawn waving flags representing his party, as the scale of his victory became clear.
The election commission said that with all votes now counted from Tuesday’s watershed poll, Nasheed had won 54.21 percent to 45.79 percent for incumbent leader Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.
"I want a peaceful transition," Nasheed told reporters during a visit to a mosque as results were coming in. "I want my supporters to be calm."
Gayoom 71, has ruled the tourist paradise islands unchallenged since 1978, and had repeatedly thrown Nasheed in jail over a period of six years.
There was no immediate comment from Gayoom or his aides to the results.
Thousands of Nasheed supporters drove around the capital Male waving their yellow flags as others hugged each other at a beachfront promenade where young people had camped for days to drum up support for his campaign.
"This is spontaneous joy," said one, Aishath Aniya.
Fathimath Niusha, a 27-year-old school teacher, said she was thrilled with the change of leadership.
"I want to see how it will be under a new president," Niusha said. "All my life, it had been under Gayoom."
Gayoom had failed to win an outright victory in the first round of voting three weeks ago, prompting the run-off against the charismatic Nasheed, 41, a former Amnesty International "prisoner of conscience."
Nasheed, a political moderate, has promised to root out corruption, improve health care and communications to remote islands, cut state spending and turn the lavish presidential palace into the first university in the country.
The Maldives, a liberal Sunni Muslim nation of 1,192 coral islands and some 300,000 people, has never had multi-party elections before. Until a few years ago, anyone declaring an intention to seek high office would be banished to an uninhabited island.
The elections followed Gayoom’s promise to bring political freedoms to the archipelago in the wake of pro-democracy protests and mounting international pressure.
Despite its popularity as an exotic holiday destination for the rich, the country is beset with corruption, an acute housing shortage and a serious drug problem said to affect one in three youngsters.
Forty percent of the population earns less than a dollar a day, and social discord led to religious extremism and an attack on tourists last year, which in turn prompted a tough crackdown on suspected Islamic extremists.
Anti-government protests erupted into riots in 2003 following the death in custody of a young man held on a drug charge.
The unrest galvanized pro-democracy activists to rally around Nasheed.
In the cramped island capital Male, most voters said they simply wanted to see a new face in charge.
Local journalist Ibrahim Mohamed, 20, said he campaigned for two years to topple Gayoom as young people were fed up with his autocratic rule.
"It is really the young people who made this happen," Mohamed said. "I was arrested and locked up three times in the past two years. I was determined to work for a change."