Maldives heads to historic presidential poll
Asia's longest serving political leader is facing the prospect of losing his job as the President of the Maldives. The Indian Ocean tourist paradise is having its first taste of democracy with multi-party elections being held to choose a president for the next five years. The 71 year old incumbent, President Maumon Abdul Gayoom, has ruled the Maldives for three decades, but says he needs another five years to continue his reforms.
The Maldives voted on Wednesday in its first democratic presidential elections that could see Asia's longest-serving president ousted by a former political prisoner.
The polls on the Indian Ocean archipelago pit incumbent President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, aged 71, and the islands' strongman for the past 30 years, against five bitter rivals.
They will also be a test for the Muslim nation's often tense transition to democracy, which Gayoom agreed to start two years ago after violent protests.
The president's main rival is seen as Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) founder Mohamed "Anni" Nasheed -- one of the president's fiercest critics and a former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience.
"Gayoom presents himself as a reformer, but he's changed colour like a chameleon. He has a track record of a dictator. He has jailed opponents on the most ridiculous charges," the 41-year-old Anni said.
Previously it was illegal to even criticise Gayoom, who has served six terms under a one-candidate system. The opposition says half the top government jobs are held by Gayoom's family.
"But I hope we can push him out gracefully," Anni said, branding Gayoom as a "has-been sultan" who was now resorting to buying votes.
Gayoom has built South Asia's richest nation, per capita, thanks to dozens of resorts on white sand beaches and crystal clear waters -- where hotels charge up to 15,000 dollars a night.
But the Maldives are also suffering from increasing drug use, worsening crime and a chronic housing shortage in the cramped island capital Male.
The country suffered its first ever terror attack a year ago, with Islamic militants blamed for bombing a park in Male and wounding a dozen tourists.
While opposition rallies have been drawing large crowds in Male, Gayoom has been busy island-hopping on outlying atolls -- where more than half the electorate lives and where his conservative Muslim platform appears to be well received.
Still, security around him remains tight -- in January, one islander tried to stab him with a kitchen knife.
Gayoom says he can fight off any challenger and win more than 50 percent of the votes to avoid a run-off but with no reliable opinion polls, the outcome is seen as impossible to predict.