Veteran Maldives leader insists he’s no dictator

Sri Dharanee Performance Arts Theatre

MALE, October 7, 2008 (AFP) – The president of the Maldives went into a multi-party election challenge to his 30 years in office Wednesday insisting he was no dictator and pledging to bow out gracefully should he lose.

Veteran strongman Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, currently Asia’s longest-serving leader, faces five challengers in the polls that mark the climax of his promise to deliver democracy to the Indian ocean archipelago.

“People want me to be there at the helm,” he told reporters as campaigning ended late Tuesday, saying the polls would be “a day of happiness” for the exotic tourist destination and voicing confidence he would win.

But he was also on the defensive, responding to lingering questions over his commitment to democracy and renewed corruption allegations.

His critics say the president, 71, has been ruling the Muslim islands as a self-styled sultan who only allowed multi-party elections out of fear of more street violence seen during pro-democracy protests in 2004.

Opposition party members have also compared him to Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe or Cuba’s Fidel Castro — albeit with a far better economic track record given that the Maldives is South Asia’s richest nation on a per capita basi