Maldives votes in first democratic election


By RAVI NESSMAN, AP

MALE, Maldives — Thousands of voters waited in snaking lines in the pouring rain Wednesday to vote in the Maldives’ first democratic presidential election, even as opposition officials complained of widespread voting irregularities.

The election has been seen as a referendum on President Mamoun Abdul Gayoom, Asia’s longest-serving ruler, who won six previous polls as the only candidate on the ballot.

“We need a change now. Thirty years is a very long time, the whole nation wants a change,” Abdullah Samad, a 49-year-old businessman, said referring to Gayoom’s three-decade tenure.

But opposition officials reported widespread problems at ballot stations across this nation of 1,190 islands scattered in the Indian Ocean. Large numbers of opposition supporters found their names missing from the voting rolls, and on at least one resort island none of the workers were registered, despite submitting their registration papers, said Ahmed Shaheed, a vice presidential candidate.

“It’s a disaster,” he said. “I think there is deliberate tampering.”

A Commonwealth observer mission will issue a report on the election.

Mariya Didi, chairwoman of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party, went to vote at her usual polling station only to find that she and her 10 brothers and sisters were not on the voting list. After waiting for hours demanding she be allowed to vote, she was told that her registration had been moved to another station across the island.

At many polling stations, voters had to wait for hours in growing lines.

Faida Farouk, a spokeswoman for Gayoom’s ruling party, said the problems were understandable.

“Certainly because it is our first multiparty election, we are experiencing a lot of teething problems,” she said.

Gayoom’s major opponents in the six-man race included Mohamed Nasheed, the charismatic leader of the MDP, and Hassan Saeed, a reform-minded former attorney general who is running on the ticket with Shaheed.

If no one wins an outright majority, the two candidates who win the most votes will face off in a second election. Turnout was expected to be high among the nation’s 208,000 registered voters.

More than a hundred people stood in line outside one Male school that doubled as a polling station for the day, huddling under umbrellas as they braved a pounding rainstorm to cast their ballots.

Many said they were hoping for new leadership to root out corruption and help foster more development.

Ibrahim Rasheed, 39, a businessman compared Gayoom to Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and Suharto in Indonesia, saying that like them, Gayoom has led a corrupt regime.

“They are all dictators, simple dictators,” he said.

But Gayoom’s supporters say he has transformed a poor nation of fishermen into the economic success story of South Asia, known worldwide for its exclusive tourist resorts.

“In the last 30 years, the president has gained a lot of support,” said Ahmed Didi, 38, who owns a construction company. “This is not the time to change the situation of people. Things are getting better, look around you.”

The newly elected president will confront a growing heroin problem, increasing fundamentalism in the Sunni Muslim nation and the looming threat that rising sea levels caused by global warming will wash the country away.

Many of the candidates are promising better health care, increased development and stronger transport links between the islands.

Gayoom, who took power in 1978, began a government reform program in 2004 in the face of large-scale 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.

Gayoom has appealed for a new five-year term, saying he needed more time to finish shepherding the transformation to democracy. His opponents say it is time for a change.