Page last updated at 14:46 GMT, Thursday, 7 August 2008 15:46 UK

Maldives adopt new constitution

By Roland Buerk
BBC News, Sri Lanka

Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in Sri Lanka 1 August
President Gayoom hopes to win a seventh term in power

The President of the Maldives, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, has ratified a new constitution bringing in key democratic changes after years of autocratic rule.

It paves the way for the first multi-party presidential elections in the Indian Ocean islands.

Mr Gayoom is Asia's longest-serving leader, having held power since 1978 Opponents describe him as a dictator.

The new constitution is the result of four years of argument and debate in the Special Majlis, or assembly.

Its ratification by the country's president brings in a separation of powers and a bill of rights.

They must take place by 10 October - although a date is yet to be set.

Information Minister Mohamed Nasheed told the BBC the Maldives had been catapulted into the ranks of established democracies.

President Gayoom has held power in the coral-fringed atolls since 1978, elected in yes-or-no referendums.

Under him, tourism has made the Maldives the most prosperous country in South Asia but his political opponents have described him as a dictator who has ruled like the Sultans of old.

A reform process began after widespread protests that were sparked by the death of a prisoner in jail in 2003.

President Gayoom has already said he will stand in the forthcoming elections, hoping to win a seventh term in power.

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