Page last updated at 10:15 GMT, Tuesday, 7 October 2008 11:15 UK

Is Asia's longest serving leader on way out?

By Roland Buerk
BBC News in the Maldives

Supporter of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom
President Gayoom enjoys much support in the attols

The tourist paradise of the Maldives is getting its first democratic presidential election on Wednesday. It could mark the end of the road for Asia's longest serving leader.

Maumoon Abdul Gayoom has ruled the Indian Ocean islands for 30 years, elected in 'yes or no' referendums since 1978.

He is running for another term in office. But this time he faces a challenge from five opponents.

If no candidate gets more than 50%, the vote will go to a second round.

Turquoise lagoons

President Gayoom insists that he is not running out of steam after three decades at the top and wants to serve another five years.

Mohammed Nasheed Anni
Mohammed Nasheed Anni says he is on course for victory

I joined him on a seaplane as he travelled from atoll to atoll campaigning in this country of nearly 1,200 islands.

We flew over coral islands surrounded by white beaches before landing by turquoise lagoons.

People lined the jetties to greet him, clapping, cheering, singing and dancing.

After his speeches hundreds lined up to shake his hand.

President Gayoom claims credit for making the Maldives South Asia's most prosperous and orderly nation, largely thanks to tourism.

There have been advances in education, health and life expectancy on the Muslim archipelago.

Now he says to complete a transition to democracy he needs more time in office.

Well received

"I think this is a vital time for my country and I have begun this very important reform agenda," said President Gayoom.

Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party supporters campaign in the capital, Male
The election campaign is now reaching its conclusion

"After being president for 30 years or even 35 years, to have this as my heritage to leave to the people, a new liberal democracy in the Maldives, that is the reason why."

Maumoon Abdul Gayoom's message is that he has experience, and stands for stability and continued economic growth.

On the atolls he visited it was well received.

One man said that 30 years of the president was not enough, he should have at least 10 more in power.

But the opposition says President Gayoom is a dictator, who only began reforms in response to street protests, and has had to be pushed all the way to this first democratic election.

'No answers'

These elections are the first time he has allowed competition.

Of the five rival candidates, most attention is on Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldivian Democratic Party which spearheaded the anti-Gayoom demonstrations.

Mr Nasheed clearly enjoys support on the cramped island capital of Male.

His final rally dwarfed those of the incumbent in the city. The crowd stood and cheered in torrential rain.

Mr Nasheed was once a political prisoner, now he is a candidate for president.

His supporters like to paint him as the Maldives' very own Nelson Mandela, while President Gayoom is depicted in the role of Robert Mugabe.

Mr Nasheed says President Gayoom has no answers for the problems of the Maldives - a paradise for wealthy tourists - but troubled by inequitable distribution of wealth, bored youths and drugs.

"He's already had 30 years," he said, snorting with derision at the idea of the president he calls a dictator needing more time for reforms.

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

"We really quite can't see how and what else he's going to do with another five years. He's ruined our lives for 30 years and now he has the audacity to come out and say he needs another five years. He's not going to get it."

And his supporters are hungry for change.

"We are 30 years old but the same president is going on, the same things are happening," said one.

"This will change the whole country because this 30-year-old dictatorship is finished," said another.

Both President Gayoom and Mr Nasheed say they are convinced of victory in the poll on Wednesday.

But with six candidates running it may be that neither gets more than 50% of the vote, so the elections will go into a second round.

The people of the Maldives await the outcome with baited breath.

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