Thousands of Maldivians voted yesterday in a referendum many hailed as the tiny Indian Ocean nation's first real expression of democracy.
Voters were technically choosing a new form of government, but many saw the referendum as an informal vote of confidence on the 29-year-reign of Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Asia's longest-serving ruler.
"This election means freedom," said Suheil Ismail, 41, after voting in a breezy, open room at a schoolhouse in the capital of Male.
Yesterday's voting appeared generally calm and courteous. At the national soccer stadium in Male, voters waited quietly in the shady stands for their turn to enter one of the 13 blue voting tents that ringed the field.
Outside, scores of the city's ubiquitous motorcycles stood neatly parked in a row, while nearby taxis ferried voters to the polling station.
Nasha Mohamed, 21, a health industry worker, said the election heralded the arrival of real democracy to the islands.
"Before, the system was not established by the people. Now, the system will be established by the people, so it should be better," she said after voting.
Gayoom is pushing for a US-style political system, with a powerful executive presidency. The opposition, wary of giving too much power to another leader -- or to Gayoom for yet another five-year term -- backs a British-style parliament, which would be led by a more accountable prime minister.
Whatever the outcome, the poll is expected to be peaceful and credible, clearing the way for the country of 300,000 people to adopt a new constitution in November, and to hold its first multiparty elections next year.
Gayoom -- who has won six elections but never faced an opponent -- has led the nation of 1,190 coral islands southwest of India through a period of explosive economic growth, fueled by the 600,000 tourists a year who frolic on the sandy beaches of its remote island resorts.
But he has also been accused by opposition leaders, Western diplomats and international human rights groups of using torture and police crackdowns to stifle dissent.
The referendum campaign engulfed Male on Friday, as the ruling party and opposition Maldivian Democratic Party held competing rallies and covered the 2km2 capital island -- home to 100,000 people -- in banners.
"This has definitely been, on both sides, the most organized and most expensive campaign ever in the country," said presidential spokesman Mohamed Shareef. "If ever people are going to be urged to get off their feet and vote, I think this is going to be it."
The vote is the culmination of a reform drive Gayoom began in 2004 amid a wave of growing street protests.
But his other reform efforts over the past three years -- legalizing opposition parties and allowing them to print newspapers -- have been followed by police crackdowns on public rallies and arrests of political dissidents.
In the run up to the referendum, concerns remained, especially after Gayoom's attorney general who is internationally respected and his minister of justice resigned earlier this month saying the president was not serious enough about his reform efforts.
Yet Foreign Minister Ahmed Shaheed, another young reformer in the government, urged patience.
"To my judgment, this is a very sincere effort by the president to bring the Maldives into the 21st Century," he said.