MALE (Reuters) - The Maldives, pushing ahead with democratic reforms, has decided to hold its first multi-party presidential election before October 10, the first popular test of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Asia’s longest-serving ruler.
Gayoom, in power since 1978, has said he will stand for re-election, defying opponents who describe the 71-year-old as a dictator who rules the island chain, famed for its luxury tourist resorts and fine scuba diving, like a sultan of old.
The constitutional assembly of the Indian Ocean archipelago voted on Sunday to hold presidential elections before October 10, 2008 and parliamentary elections before March 31, 2009.
“We wanted an election scheduled as soon as possible to renew Gayoom’s mandate or to elect someone else. This way there will be a new president in office on 11th November 2008,” said Ibrahim Shareef, a constitutional assembly member from Gayoom’s Dhivehi Raiyyithunge Party (DRP).
The DRP says Gayoom can stand in the election for a seventh term, although the constitution sets a two-term limit, because this will be the first election under a new constitution.
Opposition parliamentarians say he cannot run again and vow to take the issue to the Supreme Court if necessary.
Gayoom first pledged sweeping democratic reforms in 2004, reacting to harsh criticism of his government’s rights record in this nation of 300,000, mostly Sunni Muslims.
Opposition parties were legalised in 2005, but a new constitution for the chain of 1,200 mostly uninhabited islands 800 km off the toe of India is still being drafted.
Critics accuse Gayoom of cracking down on dissent despite his reform promises, and of stifling opposition parties to hold onto power and keep control of lucrative tourist resorts.
Opposition groups, concerned the elections might not be free and fair, formed an alliance last November to press for an interim government.
“We think it will be a relatively free and fair election. But we are still concerned that Gayoom will be head of state and have an unfair advantage in the election process,” said Hassan Hussein Rasheed, a constitutional assembly member from the Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).
But the government used its strength in the constitutional assembly to pass an article on Sunday allowing the president and cabinet to remain in place until elections are held.
In a referendum last year, the Maldives voted to adopt a U.S.-style presidential system, a victory for Gayoom and a defeat for the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party which wanted a British-style parliamentary system of government.
Gayoom, in power for 29 years, said after the referendum that he would run for re-election in the multi-party poll for one more five-year term.