MALE, October 9 – The veteran leader of the Maldives has taken the lead in the islands’ first democratic election but is short of the majority needed to avoid a tough run-off, preliminary results showed Thursday.,
The ballot count put incumbent President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who has run the Indian Ocean archipelago and luxury tourist destination unchallenged for 30 years, ahead of a divided field of five opponents.
The landmark presidential vote held Wednesday was the first time Asia’s longest-serving leader has allowed any competition.
It also marks the climax of an effort to bring political freedoms to the Muslim nation in the wake of pro-democracy protests and international pressure.
With around a third of votes counted, the election commission said Gayoom held 42 percent of the vote, and Mohamed "Anni" Nasheed, a former political prisoner and his fiercest critic, had 21 percent.
Unofficial results based on more than half the votes counted and carried by Voice of Maldives radio and the independent Minivannews.com website also showed Gayoom and Anni headed into a run-off, which must be held within 10 days.
Close behind Anni were local business magnate Ghaseem Ibrahim and former attorney general Hassan Saeed, a moderate liberal reformist.
The final official results are expected later Thursday.
Analysts say Gayoom will have a tough time fighting Anni in a run-off if supporters of the other opposition candidates rally behind the one-time Amnesty International "prisoner of conscience."
"If we do force Gayoom into a second round, then he will be in serious trouble," said a spokesman for Anni’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), which had accused Gayoom of trying to rig the polls and secure a first-round win.
Many Maldivians are eager to see a fresh face in charge of their atoll nation, which despite its image as a beach paradise is beset by problems including a critical housing shortage, rising crime and drug abuse.
Political tensions have also been mounting.
In January, one islander tried to stab Gayoom with a kitchen knife, and a year ago several tourists were injured in the Maldives’ first-ever terrorist attack, which was blamed on Islamic militants and followed by a tough crackdown.
"I want change. Thirty years of Gayoom is long enough. He’s been filling his pockets and denying our rights for long enough," said Hamza, a 20-year-old student who queued for five hours to cast his ballot.
While the cramped island capital Male is seen as an opposition stronghold, Gayoom and his conservative Muslim platform and father figure persona appear to be more popular on outlying islands.
Gayoom can also lay claim to having built South Asia’s richest nation, per capita, thanks to the opening of dozens of resorts on white sand beaches and crystal clear waters where some rooms cost up to 15,000 dollars a night.
"I feel I must be at the helm to see through the reform programme," Gayoom told reporters before the vote, positioning himself as a committed democrat rather than the Robert Mugabe-type politician his opponents paint him as.
He has also taken legal action against two opposition politicians who accused him of stealing 40 million dollars of tsunami aid and stashing away tens of millions more in a foreign bank account.