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Maldives votes in first-ever Presidential run-off

MALDIVES: Voters turned out in strength yesterday to choose the Maldives' first democratically-elected President in a run-off between Asia's longest serving leader and a former political prisoner.

President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the 71-year-old frontrunner, faces his toughest critic Mohamed "Anni" Nasheed, 41, after failing to win an outright victory in the October 8 first round.

Hotel employee Hussein Iqbal said he spent an hour in line to vote but felt it was worth it. "I voted for change," he said.

"Gayoom was the president when I was born," said Sabra Noordeen, 22, an opposition activist. "I'm keen to see a change so I went early and voted Anni," referring to the name by which the opposition leader is commonly known.

But Ibrahim Shahib, a private sector employee, said he voted for Gayoom, who has served as president since 1978 and steered the Maldives' transformation from a fishing-based economy to luxury tourism hotspot.

"He may not be great, but still he's the better candidate," Shahib said.

The Maldives, a liberal Sunni Muslim nation of 300,000 people, has never had multi-party elections before. In fact, until a few years ago, anyone declaring an intention to seek high office used to be banished to an uninhabited island.

Preliminary results will be known by Wednesday and the official count will be known within five to six days, according to the election commission.

The elections are the climax of an effort to bring political freedoms to the Indian Ocean atoll nation in the wake of pro-democracy protests and international pressure.

"Gayoom had the opportunity to gracefully bow out and allow the reforms to go ahead," said Nasheed, who has promised to privatise state trading enterprises, cut state spending and turn the Gayoom-built 62-million-dollar presidential palace into a university.

"My appeal is for him to allow a peaceful transition," he said before the final round.

Gayoom's spokesman Mohammed Shareef said, however, the presidentwho grabbed 41 percent of the first round vote compared with Nasheed's 25 percent was confident of victory.

The president declined to speak to reporters Tuesday, but later told AFP he did not want to comment fearing it might be "misinterpreted as an election law violation."

"Voting is brisk and over 450 people voted (out of a registered 1,161) here within the first four hours," said Ahmed Athif, the officer in charge of the booth where Gayoom voted.

The landmark presidential vote marks the first time Gayoom has allowed any competition. Rival political parties were only allowed to be formed on the islands two years ago.

Despite its popularity as an exotic holiday playground for the rich, the country is beset with corruption, a lack of housing, child malnutrition and a serious drug problem said to affect one in three youngsters. Practising a liberal brand of Islam, Gayoom banned radical clerics, outlawed women wearing garments that covered them from head-to-toe and took off television newscasters who covered their face with a scarf.

But 40 percent of population earn less than a dollar a day and social discord led to religious extremism and an isolated attack on tourists.

Anti-government protests erupted into riots in September 2003 following the death in custody of a young man held on a drug charge.

The unrest galvanized pro-democracy activists to rally round Nasheed.

MALE, Tuesday, AFP



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