Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Former political prisoner wins Maldives' 1st democratic election

MALE, Maldives – Asia's longest-serving ruler conceded defeat Wednesday to a former political prisoner in the Maldives' first democratic presidential election.

President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, 71, congratulated Mohamed Nasheed in a nationally televised concession speech, saying he fully supported the opposition leader and "the introduction of a new age of democracy."

"In this change we are approaching, I assure you we will make this a peaceful process," Gayoom said. "My prayer is that God gives prosperity to the Maldives and shows us peaceful and affluent days."

Nasheed won 54 percent of the vote to Gayoom's 46 percent, according to provisional results from the nation's elections commission. A final official count will be released later this week.

Hundreds of opposition supporters gathered on the streets of the capital, Male, to dance, hug and cheer as the results were announced.

"We have embraced democracy for the sake of the next generation and the people of the Maldives," said acting opposition party head Ibrahim Hussein Zaki.

Nasheed is expected to be sworn on Nov. 11, 30 years to the day that Gayoom took office in 1978 in the Indian Ocean archipelago.

The election was viewed as a referendum on Gayoom, 71, who is hailed by supporters for bringing development and tourism dollars to this tiny nation of 370,000, but is criticized by opponents who brand him a despot who violently suppressed opposition.

Nearly 87 percent of the nation's 209,000 registered voters cast ballots in the run-off election.

Nasheed, head of the Maldivian Democratic Party, is a charismatic democracy activist who had been jailed by Gayoom's regime. He promised to push through deeper democratic reforms for the nation.

Polling went more smoothly than during a chaotic first round earlier this month when six candidates were on the ballot. But hundreds complained that they had not made it onto polling lists while the names of some dead relatives had.

As the polls closed, Elections Commissioner Mohamed Ibrahim said just over 1,000 complaints had been received and were being processed. Anyone waiting in line was permitted to cast a vote.

Nobody won a majority in the Oct. 8 poll, forcing the run-off. Nasheed trailed Gayoom by 16 percentage points in the first round, but won votes from supporters of smaller opposition parties.

Since Gayoom came to power, 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.

Gayoom, who has been the only candidate on the ballot in previous elections, began a democratic reform program in 2004 in the face of large-scale street protests and growing international pressure

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