Parliament in the Maldives has unanimously voted to back plans to give the nation its first multi-party democracy, the government has said.
President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom has ruled since 1978
President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who came to power in 1978, says he wants the system in place by December.
Ahead of the sitting, four leading dissidents had been arrested.
The government said the arrests were made to prevent a planned disruption but the Maldivian Democratic Party said its gathering was going to be peaceful.
Political parties have been banned until now, with critics of President Gayoom, Asia's longest-serving leader, accusing him of running an autocratic state.
His spokesman, Ahmed Shaheed, said on Thursday the nation could "look forward to an exciting political future".
Dissidents have lobbied for democratic reform in the Maldives
Political parties can now register and fight elections in the 300,000-strong Indian Ocean nation.
"The president will now issue a proclamation passing the new legislation into law at the next working day on Sunday," Mr Shaheed told the AFP news agency.
The Maldivian Democratic Party welcomed the decision by parliament but expressed concern about the detention of some of its members.
Ahmed Mausoom, MDP treasurer, told the BBC: "We are very happy about the decision, but are unable to celebrate because of the arrest of our leader, Mohammed Nasheed."
Soon after the parliament vote, however, the dissidents were reported to have been released.
Nizin Sattar, a senior MDP member who is in exile in Sri Lanka, said uniformed policemen had stormed Mr Nasheed's home and bundled him into a jeep.
The Friends of Maldives group expressed concern at the arrests, stressing that the planned parliamentary gathering was intended to be peaceful.
However, the Maldives government said it had "information about plans to gather a mob of people outside the parliament building, intimidate members of parliament and disrupt the work of parliament".
The MDP has welcomed the democracy moves but has cast doubt on the process.
Mr Nasheed, the MDP chairman, returned from exile to take part in the reforms but says he has been under government surveillance and has had his phone tapped.