October 28, 2008 / 10:03 PM / 11 years ago

Opposition candidate leading in Maldives runoff

MALE, Oct 29 (Reuters) - Asia’s longest-serving leader on Wednesday was trailing a former political prisoner he repeatedly jailed, according to provisional results from a runoff vote in the Maldives to decide who will lead the tropical Indian Ocean archipelago.

With 46 percent of all votes counted, incumbent President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom had 47 percent compared to 53 percent for his longtime nemesis, democracy activist Mohamed “Anni” Nasheed, provisional results from the Election Commission said.

The historic vote is the culmination of years of campaigning for democratic reforms on the string of 1,192 mostly uninhabited coral atolls 800 km (500 miles) off the tip of India, which Gayoom has been criticised for ruling like a personal estate.

Gayoom, 71, won the Oct. 9-10 first round, the first multiparty vote in the former British protectorate’s history, but did not get the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff.

Nasheed, 41, was second, but this time had the backing of the four contenders who trailed him and Gayoom.

It is the first time Gayoom has faced opposition at the polls since first being elected in 1978. In each of the previous six elections, he stood alone for a yes-no nod from voters.

Election Commissioner Mohamed Ibrahim said the commission would announce a final provisional result before noon (0700 GMT), and also give a date for a final official result. The election board has a maximum of seven days to give its verdict.

There are a little more than 209,000 registered voters but no turnout figures were available.

Gayoom has pledged to hand over power peacefully if he loses.

‘WE ARE WINNING’

The early results triggered jubilation among Nasheed’s supporters in the cramped capital Male.

“Everyone in the opposition is very happy. We’ve been expecting this for a long time. This is the final and we are winning,” Mohamed Shiyam, 35, said outside the tin shack that is home to Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party.

Although there were complaints about registration and fraud like the first round, poll observers praised the exercise.

“There were still glitches with voter registration, but the feedback we are getting is very positive. It is nothing like the last time,” a Western diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

The Maldives is best-known as a tropical idyll of azure waters and Robinson Crusoe-like solitude, frequented by Hollywood stars and others who can afford room rates rising to thousands of dollars a night. It has a population of 300,000 Sunni Muslims.

Gayoom is widely credited with overseeing the Maldives’ transformation from a fishing-based economy to a tourism powerhouse with South Asia’s highest per-capita income.

Nasheed argues that only a small group around Gayoom grew rich amid corruption in his government, which Gayoom denies.

Nasheed was at the centre of pro-democracy protests in 2004 that led to a heavy-handed crackdown and drew rare international attention.

He now faces a charge from the newly independent electoral commission accusing him of illegal campaigning. He denies the charges but faces up to two years in jail if convicted. If he wins, it is unclear what would happen.

Whoever wins will take over an economy that gets 28 percent of its GDP directly from tourism but which is under IMF pressure to ease debts and trim a huge government payroll. And tourism is expected to suffer from the global financial crisis.

It also faces high child malnutrition, growing Islamist extremism, a major heroin problem, and rising sea levels that could see much of its land mass underwater by 2100, if a U.N. climate change panel’s predictions are right.

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