October 8, 2008 / 9:29 AM / 10 years ago

Maldives hold historic presidential poll

MALE (Reuters) - Voting problems hit the Maldives’ first multiparty presidential election on Wednesday, a poll seen as a referendum on President’s Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s 30-year rule of islands famed for their luxury resorts.

Asia’s longest-serving leader is seeking a seventh term running the archipelago of 300,000 people, mostly Sunni Muslims, which in the past he has been accused of ruling like a personal sultanate — a form of government abolished there in 1968.

The poll in the sleepy Maldives, best known as a tropical luxury hideaway for Hollywood stars, is the culmination of years of agitation for democratic reforms which Gayoom, 71, finally signed into law in August.

Many Maldivians and diplomats had expected some bribery and vote-rigging, and problems arose a few hours into the polling.

But main opposition challenger Mohamed Nasheed said the issues — voting lists that didn’t match official records and ink supposed to mark someone as having voted which ran off in the rain — were minor.

“Only a small number of people are affected; it will not affect the results,” Nasheed, Gayoom’s long-time political nemesis, told a cheering crowd of supporters who had gathered outside the heavily guarded central counting station.

Most Maldivians expect a runoff, with Gayoom and Nasheed tipped as favourites.

Only one of the six candidates, Umar Nasheer, called for the vote to be nullified. The electoral board, which held an emergency meeting, declined comment.

ENTHUSIASM IN THE RAIN

When polling got underway at 9 a.m. (5 a.m. British time), voters expressed great enthusiasm despite heavy rain.

“I feel very proud to do this for my country. Today is a new kind of election. I think it will be very fair,” Mohamed Mahfouz, a 35-year-old fashion designer, said after casting his ballot.

Despite some minor threats against political figures earlier this week, the archipelago of 1,196 islands located 800 km (500 miles) off the tip of India was mostly calm.

Polling was taking place at 396 polling stations spread across the archipelago’s nearly 200 inhabited atolls and on some islands with luxury resorts. The electoral commission says 209,000 people have registered to vote.

Voting was due to close at 8 p.m. (6 p.m. British time) with a preliminary result expected within a few hours, the electoral commission said. The official announcement was due on Thursday at 1130 p.m. (7:30 p.m. British time).

Many Maldivians complain that a small political elite has grown rich from tourism, which is the linchpin of the $850 million economy and accounts for 28 percent of GDP.

Diplomats hope the poll will be an example of a peaceful and fair democratic election in a Muslim majority nation, with a non-violent transition should power change hands.

A runoff date will be announced if no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote. Gayoom on Tuesday promised to hand over power peacefully if he loses.

Gayoom drew international criticism after a heavy-handed crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, which eventually led to his signing into law last month a new constitution that established an independent judiciary and electoral body.

It also abolished the old style of voting for president, where a parliament-approved candidate stood in a referendum. Those elections saw Gayoom returned to power six times with what he said was more than 90 percent of the vote.

Whoever wins will inherit two major challenges — sustaining an economy dependent on tourism and fishing, and rising seas.

A U.N. climate change panel is predicting seas are likely to rise up to 59 cm (2 ft) by 2100, and most of the Maldives’ islands are no higher than 1.5 m (4 feet) above sea level.

Writing by Bryson Hull; Editing by Alex Richardson

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