MALE, October 8 – The Maldives voted Wednesday in its first democratic presidential elections that could see Asia’s longest-serving president ousted by a former political prisoner.,
The polls on the Indian Ocean archipelago pit incumbent President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, aged 71, and the islands’ strongman for the past 30 years, against five bitter rivals.
They will also be a test for the Muslim nation’s often tense transition to democracy, which Gayoom agreed to start two years ago after violent protests.
The president’s main rival is seen as Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) founder Mohamed "Anni" Nasheed, one of his fiercest critics and a former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience.
"Gayoom presents himself as a reformer, but he’s changed colour like a chameleon. He has a track record of a dictator. He has jailed opponents on the most ridiculous charges," the 41-year-old Anni told AFP.
Previously it was illegal to even criticise Gayoom, who has served six terms under a one-candidate system. The opposition says half the top government jobs are held by Gayoom’s family.
"But I hope we can push him out gracefully," Anni said, branding Gayoom as a "has-been sultan" who was now resorting to buying votes.
Gayoom has built South Asia’s richest nation, per capita, thanks to dozens of resorts on white sand beaches and crystal clear waters, where hotels charge up to 15,000 dollars a night.
But the Maldives are also suffering from increasing drug use, worsening crime and a chronic housing shortage in the cramped island capital Male.
The country suffered its first ever terror attack a year ago, with Islamic militants blamed for bombing a park in Male and wounding a dozen tourists.
While opposition rallies have been drawing large crowds in Male, Gayoom has been busy island-hopping on outlying atolls where more than half the electorate lives and where his conservative Muslim platform appears to be well received.
Still, security around him remains tight in January, one islander tried to stab him with a kitchen knife.
Gayoom says he can fight off any challenger and win more than 50 percent of the votes to avoid a run-off but with no reliable opinion polls, the outcome is seen as impossible to predict.
"I feel I must be at the helm to see through the reform programme," Gayoom told reporters in his final campaign appearance, positioning himself as a committed democrat rather than the Robert Mugabe or Fidel Castro-type politician his opponents portray him as.
"It is very wrong to compare me to those people," he said, promising to "abide by the verdict" of the people and bow out quietly should he lose.
But he did say he had filed defamation cases against two opposition politicians who accuse him of stealing 40 million dollars of tsunami aid and stashing away tens of millions more in a foreign bank account.
Gayoom is also on the defensive following the release of a damning report this week by the Maldives’ independent auditor general, which accused the government of handing out millions of dollars to loyalists.
"Obviously this is politically motivated and violates my rights," said the president.
Other prominent opponents include former attorney general Hassan Saeed, and local business magnate Ghaseem Ibrahim.
In all, 208,000 people are eligible to vote. Polls open at 9:00 am (0400 GMT) and close at 9:00 pm. Results are expected Thursday.