(AFP) - A former political prisoner swept to victory in the Maldives' first democratic presidential election, officials said Wednesday, unseating Asia's longest-serving leader and sparking scenes of celebration.
Supporters of Mohamed "Anni" Nasheed celebrated in the capital of the Indian Ocean atoll nation after he collected 54.21 per cent of the poll to 45.79 per cent for incumbent leader Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.
"I don't think we should go for a witch hunt," Nasheed said at a joint Press conference with Gayoom, whom he has accused of repeatedly torturing him in custody."That will not happen because it will not help democracy."
Nasheed, 41, said he wanted to move quickly to assure the international community that he would introduce more reforms, including media freedom, in the run-up to parliamentary elections due by February. Conceding defeat after Tuesday's elections, Gayoom said he would give his "full support and cooperation" to Nasheed taking power. "I don't like being beaten in sports. I don't like being beaten in politics. But it is a fact of life that sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. In that spirit, I accept this verdict of the people," he said. The Maldives, a liberal Sunni Muslim nation of 1,192 coral islands and some 300,000 people, has never held multi-party elections before.
Gayoom, 71, ruled the tourist paradise islands unchallenged since 1978 and over a period of six years repeatedly jailed Nasheed, a former Amnesty International "prisoner of conscience". Until a few years ago, anyone declaring an intention to seek high office would be banished to an uninhabited island.
Thousands of Nasheed supporters drove around Male and embraced each other at a beachfront promenade where young people had camped for days to drum up support for his campaign. "This is spontaneous joy," said one, Aishath Aniya.
Fathimath Niusha, a 27-year-old school teacher, said she was thrilled with the change of leadership. "I want to see how it will be under a new president," Niusha said. "All my life, it had been under Gayoom." Gayoom had failed to win an outright victory in the first round of voting three weeks ago, prompting a run-off against charismatic Nasheed.
Nasheed, a political moderate, has promised to root out corruption, improve health care and communications in remote islands, cut state spending and turn the lavish presidential palace into the first university in the country. The elections followed Gayoom's promise to bring political freedoms to the archipelago in the wake of pro-democracy protests and mounting international pressure.
Despite its popularity as an exotic holiday destination for the rich, the Maldives is beset with corruption, an acute housing shortage and a serious drug problem said to affect one in three youngsters.
Local journalist Ibrahim Mohamed, 20, said he campaigned for two years to topple Gayoom as young people were fed up with his autocratic rule.
"It is really the young people who made this happen," Mohamed said. "I was arrested and locked up three times in the past two years. I was determined to work for a change."