Maldives Set for Historic Election

To the tourists who fill its coffers, the Maldives is a paradise of private islands and secluded resorts. To the citizens who fill its cramped capital and far-flung atolls, it is a virtual dictatorship where dissent has been brutally quashed.

Maldives Set for Historic Election
Maldivians hope that will begin to change Saturday, with a popular referendum on a new form of government -- a vote hailed as the Sunni Muslim nation's first real expression of democracy.

"It will be a turning point in the history of the Maldives," Mohamed Nasheed, leader of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party, said on Friday.

Whatever the people of the Indian Ocean country choose, "it will be turning toward a people's government," he said.

The vote has been framed as a referendum on the 29-year rule of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Asia's longest-serving ruler. Gayoom has led the nation of 1,190 coral islands southwest of India through a period of explosive economic growth, but has also been accused of using torture and police crackdowns to stifle dissent.

Gayoom is pushing for a U.S.-style political system, with a powerful executive presidency. The opposition, wary of giving too much power to another leader -- or to Gayoom for another five years -- backs a British-style parliament, which would be led by a more accountable prime minister.

Whatever the outcome, a peaceful, credible poll is expected to clear the way for the country of 300,000 people to adopt a new constitution in November, and to hold its first multiparty elections next year.

The vote is the culmination of a reform drive Gayoom began in 2004 amid a wave of street protests in the capital that threatened to bring down the government.

But his other reform efforts over the past three years -- legalizing opposition parties and allowing them to print newspapers -- have been followed by police crackdowns on public rallies and arrests of political dissidents.

As Maldivians geared up for Saturday's vote, concerns remained, especially after Gayoom's internationally respected attorney general and his minister of justice resigned earlier this month, saying the president was not serious enough about his reform efforts.

Foreign Minister Ahmed Shaheed, another young reformer in the government, urged patience.

"To my judgment, this is a very sincere effort by the president to bring the Maldives into the 21st century," he said.

Western diplomats said they believed Gayoom, who has won six elections but never faced an opponent, did intend to move toward a multiparty democracy.

"By and large, things are going in a positive direction," U.S. Ambassador Robert Blake said.

The Maldives is by far the wealthiest -- and most orderly -- country in south Asia, with tourism accounting for a third of the economy and fishing making up a big chunk of the rest.

But half the population is under 18, reasonably well-educated and with few prospects for good jobs. Some young people have turned to drug use. Others have embraced a conservative strain of Islam.

The Maldives, whose highest point is only 7.9 feet above sea level, is also facing the threat that ocean levels, rising due to global warming, will eventually swallow it up.

The islands were inundated by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and were battered again earlier this year by storm surges.

On Friday, Male -- the .77-square mile capital island where 100,000 people live -- was covered with yellow opposition posters, urging voters to choose a parliamentary system. Scores of activists in yellow T-shirts crowded into one of series of last-minute rallies in the neat, winding streets as police tried to clear a path to let the island's ubiquitous motorcycles roll past.

"The wealth we are getting is not spread equally," said Ishmail Rasheed, a 40-year-old opposition supporter. "Because of that we want change."

Gayoom's supporters circled the island in a flotilla of boats, waving balloons, cheering and trailing campaign banners that explained that only a presidential system would let voters directly elect their leader.

In a sign of the relative civility of the electioneering, trucks of exuberant supporters from both sides confronted each other in the street in the last, frenzied minutes of the campaign. The situation appeared headed toward violence, but in the end, the opponents just threw candy and balloons at each other.

Shiaz Nirolhuma, 21, said his island of 800 people was essentially destroyed by the tsunami, and remains uninhabitable despite promises to rebuild. He wants a strong presidential system so such problems can be resolved. But in an indication that some Maldivians don't see the vote as a referendum on Gayoom's rule, he deeply opposes the president.

"We want new people," he said.

AP
Last Mod: 18 Ağustos 2007, 17:00
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