Maldives Backs President in Referendum

The Associated Press
Sunday, August 19, 2007; 12:24 PM

MALE, Maldives -- The longtime president of this tiny Indian Ocean nation won an overwhelming victory Sunday in a referendum on the Maldives' future form of government, but the opposition slammed the results as rigged and called for protests.

The vote was expected to clear the way for the Sunni Muslim nation of 300,000 to adopt a new constitution in November and hold its first multiparty elections next year.

Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who has ruled the islands for three decades and is called a dictator by the opposition, sought a U.S.-style political system with a powerful executive presidency. His opponents, wary of keeping power consolidated, backed a British-style parliamentary system.

Results Sunday showed the presidential form of government winning more than 60 percent of the vote, while the parliamentary system took just 38 percent.

Gayoom hailed the vote as a "massive endorsement" by the people, according to Maldivian media. He brushed off accusations of vote rigging and urged all parties to work together for reform and national unity. He also said he would run in the presidential elections planned for next year.

The opposition Maldivian Democratic Party, meanwhile, rejected the results and called for anti-government protests.

"We never thought that Gayoom would be able to conduct a free and fair election. This was not different from any other election held in the country," MDP leader Mohamed Nasheed said, adding that the party planned to release a report on election irregularities.

Gayoom, who has won election six times but never faced an opponent, has led his nation of 1,190 coral islands through explosive economic growth, fueled by 600,000 tourists a year.

But Western diplomats and international human rights groups have accused him of using torture and police crackdowns to stifle dissent.

In 2004, Gayoom began a government reform in the face of large-scale street protests. Some Maldivian reformers say tensions are on the rise because half the population is under the age of 18 and reasonably well-educated, but there are few prospects for good jobs. Drug abuse has also become a problem in the islands and many young people have embraced a conservative strain of Islam.

© 2007 The Associated Press