(AFP) – Oct 9, 2008
MALE (AFP) — The first-ever democratic presidential election in the Maldives looked set to go into a second round after Asia's longest-serving leader apparently failed to deliver a knock-out blow to his rivals.
Official results based on roughly two-thirds of ballots cast showed incumbent President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom -- who has run the Indian Ocean archipelago unchallenged for 30 years -- in the lead but short of a majority needed to avoid a tough run-off.
The president had just under 40 percent support, the election commission said, with his most outspoken critic -- former political prisoner Mohamed "Anni" Nasheed -- in second place with around 26 percent.
If the counting trend holds, the two will fight head-to-head within 10 days.
Analysts say Gayoom will have a tough time fighting Nasheed in a run-off if supporters of the other opposition candidates rally behind the one-time Amnesty International "prisoner of conscience."
"If there is a second round, that would be a big blow to Gayoom. He was so sure of winning in the first round," said an official from Nasheed's Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), which had accused Gayoom of trying to rig the polls.
The landmark presidential vote held Wednesday was the first time Asia's longest-serving leader has allowed any competition.
The polls also marked the climax of an effort to bring political freedoms to the Muslim nation of 300,000 people in the wake of pro-democracy protests and international pressure.
Rival political parties were only allowed to be formed two years ago.
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 -- with his conservative Muslim platform and father figure persona -- appears 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.
And the president 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.
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