10/08/2008, 00.00
MALDIVES
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Maldivians to elect president in their first multi-party elections in more than 30 years

After more than 30 years under President Gayoom, voters will make history. After an intensively fought campaign across hundreds of islands the next president will have his hands full with the country’s many social and economic problems.
New Delhi (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The Maldives today are holding their first multi-party presidential elections, the culmination of a peaceful pro-democracy movement that became irresistible after violent riots in 2005. A few hours into the poll the situation appears calm with soldiers and police patrolling the streets.

Outgoing President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom is favoured to win. After more than 30 years in power he has played the stability card, stressing that he is a “safe pair of hands,” the mastermind behind the country’s economic success, especially in the area of tourism.

Conversely, the other five candidates have strongly criticised his “dictatorial and bullying" style of leadership.

His main challenger is Mohamed Nasheed, leader of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), one of his fiercest critics and a former prisoner of conscience who still limps from the torture he received in prison.

Nasheed has blamed President Gayoom for placing 44 members of his family in senior government posts, and for creating a deeply divided society with 7 per cent of the people among the top rich and 70 per cent living below the poverty line.

The challenger has also accused the president of “dirty tricks” including what he says is the false allegation that the MDP wants to convert the predominantly Muslim population to Christianity.

Gayoom has promised to hand over power peacefully if he loses. And last month, he signed into law a new constitution establishing an independent judiciary and electoral body.

These reforms ended the practice of parliament approving a single candidate who was put forward in a referendum. On this basis, Gayoom was returned to power six times with what he said was more than 90 per cent of the vote.

Under the new constitution the new 74-member parliament will have the power to block cabinet appointments and produce new laws.

The campaign has been quite intense with heated demonstrations by supporters of the various candidates; sometimes well into wee hours of the night. Using private planes candidates have gone island hopping to reach out the 280,000 eligible voters.

Results are expected for tomorrow but the outcome is still uncertain.

Nasheed is expected to win the urban vote, whilst Gayoom is better known in the smaller islands where people are more likely to respond to his propaganda claiming that he will protect Islam.

If no one gets an outright 50+1 per cent majority, there will be a runoff election.

Whoever wins will have to tackle a series of problems, starting with rising drug use among the young people of this tourist paradise. A deteriorating environment is another, in particular as rising sea levels could wash away the country. likewise poverty is widespread and security has become a major issue after the country’s first terrorist attack last year by Islamic militants injured several tourists in a Malé park. (PB)

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