Voting opens in tropical Maldives

MALE, Maldives, Aug 18, 2007 (AFP) – Voting in a landmark referendum got under way Saturday in the Maldives to decide the future political direction of the tropical Indian Ocean atoll nation, officials said. Polling stations opened at 7:00am (0200 GMT) and will be kept open for 12 hours, the election commission said.

“Voting has started,” election official Shauaib Yoosuf said, adding that opening hours could be extended to accommodate islanders in far-away atolls in the tiny republic, a popular if expensive tourist destination.

The election is also seen as an acid test on Asia’s longest serving ruler, President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who first came to power in 1978.

After nearly three decades of his leadership, the 194,000 eligible voters are being asked whether to switch to a British-style parliamentary democracy, or elect a US-model presidency.

The Maldives is a chain of 1,192 tiny coral islands scattered across some 850 kilometres (550 miles) across the equator.

Only 200 islands are inhabited by the 300,000 mainly Sunni Muslim population.

Ballot boxes were sent by boat to outlying islands days ahead of time, and results will be faxed to the capital Male late Saturday.