A former political prisoner won the Maldives’ first democratic presidential election today, defeating long-time ruler President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and sending euphoric opposition supporters pouring into the streets.
With all the votes counted, opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed won 54% of the vote to Mr Gayoom’s 46%, according to the elections commission.
The result appeared to end the 30-year-reign of Asia’s longest-serving ruler, who won six previous elections but never before faced an opponent.
Under strong international pressure and growing street protests, Mr Gayoom began a democratic reform programme on the Indian Ocean archipelago in 2004, lifting the ban on opposition parties, supporting a new constitution and committing to holding the nation’s first multi-party presidential election.
The election was viewed as a referendum on Mr Gayoom, who is hailed by supporters for bringing development and tourism dollars to the tiny nation of 370,000, but is criticised by opponents who brand him a despot who violently suppressed opposition.
Nearly 87% of the nation’s 209,000 registered voters cast ballots in the historic election.
As results of the run-off election were announced, hundreds of opposition supporters gathered on the streets of the capital Male to dance, hug and cheer for Mr Nasheed, who was reportedly in talks with 71-year-old Mr Gayoom.
Mr Nasheed, head of the Maldivian Democratic Party, is a charismatic democracy activist who had been jailed by Mr Gayoom’s regime. He promised to push through deeper democratic reforms for the nation.
Polling went more smoothly in the run-off than during a chaotic first round earlier this month when six candidates were on the ballot. But hundreds of people still complained they had not made it onto registration lists while the names of some dead relatives had.
Nobody won a majority in the October 8 poll, forcing a run-off. Mr Nasheed, who trailed Mr Gayoom by 16 percentage points in the first round, quickly got endorsements from the losing candidates, who united to oust the long-time ruler.
“We want a change. It makes a big difference to be able to choose and decide,” said Ibrahim Shameem, a 47-year-old civil servant as he voted. “Before, even though we voted, we didn’t know if our vote was counted.”
Since Mr Gayoom came to power in 1978, the Maldives has been transformed from a fishing community without roads to a regional tourism hub attracting billions in foreign capital that his supporters say has improved the standard of living for many.
Mr Gayoom had appealed to voters, saying that he wanted to continue shepherding the democratic reforms he began.
Campaigning was dominated by weeks of character attacks played out in the media, with little attention to serious challenges such as the impact of the global financial crisis on tourism, rising sea levels caused by climate change and a ballooning heroin problem.
Mr Gayoom’s allies accused Mr Nasheed of seeking to spread Christianity in the increasingly conservative Muslim country, while the opposition accused the president of being a dictator who abused human rights.
Mr Nasheed is a Sunni Muslim like the president and denies any secret Christian agenda. Mr Gayoom, for his part, denies that he has silenced opponents by throwing them in prison.