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Page last updated at 21:12 GMT, Wednesday, 8 October 2008 22:12 UK

Voting extended in Maldives poll

President Gayoom queuing to vote
I feel I must be at the helm to see through the reform programme
Maumoon Abdul Gayoom

Voting in the Maldives first multi-party presidential poll has been extended amid claims of irregularities.

Polling was due to end at 2000 (1500 GMT) but vote officials said everyone with an identity card who wants to vote will be allowed to cast their ballot.

President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Asia's longest serving leader, is seeking a seventh term after 30 years in power.

The president faces five challengers, some of whom have criticised his "dictatorial and bullying" style.

The BBC's Roland Buerk, in Male, says that late into the evening, hundreds of people were waiting patiently to cast their votes.

Polling stations stayed open well after the official closing time following complaints that people had been left off the voters' list.

The Maldivian Election Commission considered cancelling the poll at one stage on Wednesday, our correspondent says.

But officials later announced that anyone with an identity card who was not registered to vote could register at polling stations, which would stay open until all those who wanted to vote had done so.

Irregularities 'minor'

The president's main challenger, Mohamed Nasheed, said that although there were cases of voting lists not matching official records, the irregularities were minor and he feared violence if the vote was not completed.

"Only a small number of people are affected; it will not affect the results," Mr Nasheed told a cheering crowd of supporters who had gathered outside the heavily guarded central counting station.

However the chairwoman of his Maldivian Democratic Party, (MDP) Mariya Didi, said that irregularities had taken place and she had been unable to vote.

"We had high hopes for today," she said. "We hoped that once in our lifetime we could vote freely, but today we are being denied our right."

The polls are the culmination of reforms introduced by President Gayoom who queued for over an hour before casting his vote on Wednesday.

Woman voting in the maldives
Polling has been brisk throughout Wednesday

Polling began at 0400GMT on Wednesday and 208,000 people are eligible to vote. Results are not due before Thursday evening.

Correspondents say that the campaign has been hard fought and lively, with noisy late-night rallies in the capital, Male.

There are many problems for the winner to confront, including a growing heroin problem among the young and the threat caused by rising sea levels which environmentalists say could wash the country away.

Candidates have used sea planes to canvas for votes among the hundreds of islands that make up the archipelago.

President Gayoom has urged voters to back him because he is a "safe pair of hands" who will keep the country's economy - especially its important tourism sector - functioning smoothly.

The president argues that after 30 years of his leadership, the Maldives has become South Asia's richest economy, at the forefront of the international battle against climate change and on the verge of becoming a fully fledged democracy.

"If you want a leader who will protect these freedoms, our religion and our culture, then vote for me," he told supporters, promising "five more dynamic years".

President Gayoom's has been travelling across the atolls where his bedrock support is found to encourage people to vote.

Security around him has been tight - in January an islander tried to stab him, but he was foiled by a boy scout who fought off the attacker.

'More trustworthy'

Mr Nasheed of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) is one of the president's fiercest critics and a former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience.

Mohamed Nasheed, head of the Maldivian Democratic Party
The opposition says it is time for change

He has accused President Gayoom of nepotism and "dirty tricks", including what he says is the false allegation that the MDP wants to convert everyone to Christianity.

The election follows reforms introduced after Mr Gayoom was accused of crushing pro-democracy protests in 2004.

If no candidate gets more than 50% of the votes, a second round of polling will be held.


SEE ALSO
Profile: President Maumoon Gayoom
08 Oct 08 |  South Asia
Maldives adopt new constitution
07 Aug 08 |  South Asia
Attack on president of Maldives
08 Jan 08 |  South Asia
Maldives militant move condemned
18 Oct 07 |  South Asia
Country profile: The Maldives
14 Aug 08 |  Country profiles

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