Maldives gears up for first democratic election

Image: Maldives president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and his wife speak to supporters
Maldives president Maumoun Abdul Gayoom, second right, and his wife, right, speak to supporters after a media briefing in Male on Tuesday.Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

To supporters, President Mamoun Abdul Gayoom is a hero who turned a poor nation of fishermen into a tourist paradise and the economic success story of South Asia.

Detractors accuse him of ruling the Maldives as a dictator, violently suppressing dissent and amassing wealth for his friends and family.

On Wednesday, Asia's longest-serving ruler will face his first democratic election, challenged by a crowded field of opponents who say it is time for a change.

"We've had a dictatorship for the last 30 years," said Mohamed Nasheed, head of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party. "The people of this country deserve better."

Whoever wins will inherit a stunningly beautiful country of 1,190 coral islands, about 200 of them inhabited and dozens more developed into tourist resorts, many owned by current and former Cabinet ministers.

The elected president will also confront a growing heroin problem, increasing fundamentalism in the Sunni Muslim nation and the threat of rising sea levels caused by global warming.

Candidates promise reform
Gayoom's two main challengers are Nasheed, a charismatic former political prisoner who led the pro-democracy movement, and former Attorney-General Hassan Saeed, a respected reformer who resigned last year complaining Gayoom was frustrating the transition to democracy.

Maldives' main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party's presidential candidate Mohammed Nasheed speaks during an election campaign in Male, Maldives, Monday, Oct. 6, 2008. Longtime President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom will face five opponents in the Maldives' first democratic presidential election on Oct. 8. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)Eranga Jayawardena / AP

A former foreign minister, an Islamic party candidate and the head of a small opposition party also are running. If no one wins an outright majority, the top two vote-winners will meet in a runoff.

There is little difference between the main candidates' platforms, which promise better health care and stepped up development for poorer islands far from the capital city of Male, said Saeed.

"From this stage, it is about the personality, who is more credible, more trustworthy," he said.

He said he would pull people from all parties into his administration and, unlike Gayoom, would ban his relatives from holding key government jobs.

"We counted close to 44 of his family members in senior posts," Saeed said.

Gayoom, who took power in 1978, touted his record of bringing development to this nation of 350,000 and appealed for a seventh five-year term.

"We are not through yet. We have achieved part of the program, but there is still a lot to achieve," said Gayoom, who has never before faced an opponent in an election.

Just ahead of the vote, Gayoom was forced to make a nationally televised address to dispute an auditor general's report accusing his government of improperly accounting for millions of dollars.

"Obviously this report has a political nature," he said.

'Power to the People'
After winning six elections unopposed, Gayoom began a government reform program in 2004 in the face of street protests and growing international pressure.

A new constitution stripping much of the president's power, establishing independent courts and creating term limits was ratified in August, clearing the way for the vote.

In the weeks before the election, the top candidates campaigned to enthusiastic support, with posters and huge banners in Male.

Saeed said he visited more than 140 islands, traveling by seaplane to some remote atolls. His campaign posters, with the slogan "Power to the People," featured multicolored Andy Warhol-inspired portraits.

Gayoom was greeted by singing and dancing villagers when he arrived by seaplane recently on outlying islands, where he remains popular.

In Male, a Gayoom rally broke out at a park along the coast when a sound truck blaring campaign slogans and music pulled up and party workers threw campaign hats and T-shirts to supporters. The gathering abruptly ended when the evening call to prayer rang out from a nearby mosque.

'We have everything'
Before Gayoom took power, the Maldives had no paved roads and few education opportunities. The only health care on outlying islands was from traditional healers who recited verses from the Quran and splashed water in patients' faces, said Aishath Didi, a 49-year-old who wore a Gayoom hat over her Islamic head scarf.

"Now what don't we get? We have everything," she said.

At a rally Monday night in Male, Nasheed was hailed as Maldives' Nelson Mandela to a roaring crowd of thousands. When torrential rain began, some ran for the nearby trees but hundreds of others stood defiantly on their chairs.

Fathu Hulla, a 25-year-old accountant who ducked under a tree, said Gayoom had turned the economy over to cronies and should have been removed 15 years ago.

"We woke up too late," Hulla said.