Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom appeared headed for an overwhelming victory yesterday in a referendum on the Maldives' future form of government, a poll seen as an informal vote of confidence on his three-decade rule of this tiny Indian Ocean nation.
Gayoom, criticized as a dictator by the opposition, supported a US-style political system with a powerful executive presidency for this Sunni Muslim nation of 300,000 people.
The opposition, wary of consolidating power in yet another leader, backed a British-style parliament, which would be led by a weaker prime minister.
The vote was seen as the first true expression of democracy in the Maldives' 43-year history.
Preliminary results yesterday morning showed the presidential form of government gaining roughly two-thirds support, 52,969 votes, to 26,544 votes for a parliamentary system.
Turnout had not yet been announced, so it was not clear what percentage of the referendum vote that represented, though it appeared to be well above half.
"If ever anybody needed, locally or internationally, an endorsement of how popular this man is, this is sufficient," presidential spokesman Mohamed Shareef said.
A credible poll was expected to clear the way for the Maldives to adopt a new constitution in November and to hold its first multiparty elections next year.
On Saturday, the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party said it filed 120 complaints about voting irregularities.
The ruling party, known locally as the DRP, complained the opposition engaged in intimidation, violence and illegal campaigning, but as the favorable numbers began flowing in, they issued a release saying the vote was relatively peaceful.
"The people have definitely embraced the democratic reform agenda of the president," Shareef said.
MDP officials were not immediately available for comment on the results.
Calm prevailed on Saturday at many polling booths in Male and international observers on remote islands reported orderly voting.
Mohamed Shahuneem, 18, said he was going to vote for a presidential system to show his support for Gayoom.
"We are very happy. It's normal here because of the president," he said.
"If this man brings freedom and democracy to us, it will be a miracle," said Adam Maniku, 60, a former deputy finance minister.
Gayoom has led the nation of 1,190 coral islands through explosive economic growth, fueled by 600,000 tourists a year.
But Western diplomats and international human rights groups have accused him of using torture and police crackdowns to stifle dissent during his nearly three-decade rule.