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Maldives Holds Its First Democratic Presidential Election


Maldives is holding its first-ever democratic presidential election. The historic vote pits President Mamoun Abdul Gayoom, who has ruled the country for 30 years, against five opponents, including the head of the country's pro-democracy movement. From New Delhi, Anjana Pasricha has a report.

Heavy rain did not deter thousands of voters from waiting in long lines to cast ballots across the tiny Indian Ocean islands that make up Maldives.

It was the first time they had a choice to make. President Gayoom - Asia's longest-serving ruler - has won six previous elections as the only candidate.

There were complaints of voting irregularities - many opposition supporters said their names were missing from electoral rolls. Officials called them minor problems in the country's first-ever multi-party poll.

Wednesday's vote was held after Mr. Gayoom began a reform program in 2004 in the face of large-scale street protests.

The election was held after a hard campaign. President Gayoom has hopped in planes across the hundreds of corals islands that make up the country. The opposition has focused on the capital Male.

The president's supporters say he has turned the nation into South Asia's richest, by building a huge tourism industry on the scenic islands. They say he needs more time to build its economy and complete the nation's transition to democracy.

His opponents accuse him of jailing his opponents, suppressing dissent and handing out favors to friends and family.

An expert in international affairs at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, Professor A.K. Pasha, says critics blame the President Gayoom for ruling like a dictator.

"For the last few years, he has seen growing opposition, they are accusing Gayoom of having muzzled opposition and creating structures conducive for his authoritarian rule in the garb of democratic elections," Pasha said.

The president's main rival is the head of the Maldivian Democratic Party, Mohamed Nasheed, who has been jailed several times on charges that human-rights groups say are politically motivated. He says the country needs a new leadership that will root out corruption.

The election on the chain of islands is being watched by many countries, partly because of fears that fundamentalist Islamic groups are gaining a presence in the country. Maldives suffered a terror attack a year ago, with Islamic militants blamed for a bombing in Male.

Diplomats hope that the election will be an example of peaceful transition to democracy in a country with a Muslim-majority population.

The results are expected late Thursday. If no candidate wins an outright majority, the two candidates with the most votes will face off in another election.



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