By Simon Gardner
MALE (Reuters) - Maldives President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom aims to complete a raft of democratising reforms in his Indian Ocean archipelago within 2-3 years and says he is not seeking to indefinitely extend his three-decade rule.
Buoyed by a weekend referendum seen as an endorsement of his rule, Asia's longest-serving leader will run for re-election at the island cluster's first multi-party presidential elections next year.
But he stressed in an interview that, after 29 years in power, one more five-year term would be enough.
Political opponents describe 71-year-old Gayoom as a dictator who rules like a sultan of old, and say it is time he handed over the reins of a land best known for luxury honeymoons and world-class scuba now.
"For the whole of the reform agenda to be completed, it might take 2-3 years from now," Gayoom told Reuters late on Sunday at his office in the island capital of Male, just hours after more than 60 percent of voters opted to adopt the U.S.-style presidential model he advocated.
"I want ... to see the reform programme through till it is finally settled. I want that to be my legacy to the nation," the former university lecturer added. "After that I have no ambition to continue in this post."
And why wait 29 years to implement reform in the chain of 1,200 mostly uninhabited islands 800 km off the toe of India?
"We hadn't developed enough to be able to cope with the concept of democracy," he said. "(Now) we have a more educated people ... I think people are more or less ready now to have a full-fledged democracy."
Outside, his supporters danced to blaring music on flatbed trucks driving along the sea-front of this densely populated 2.0 square kilometre coral island that is home to a third of the island cluster's 300,000 mostly Sunni Muslim population.
Gayoom pledged democratic reforms in late 2004 to revamp the Maldives' autocratic power structure in the face of harsh criticism of the government's rights record. Rights groups have decried crackdowns on political dissent and described terror and treason charges levelled against opponents as draconian.
Political parties were legalised in 2005, but promised reforms including a new constitution, separation of powers and judicial independence are still to materialise, and many are frustrated at the pace. Two leading cabinet members Gayoom had hand-picked quit earlier this month, accusing him of stalling.
"Nothing has been held (back) or put a brake on. To say the pace of the reform agenda is slow is not correct at all," Gayoom said. "The most important part of the reform agenda is the constitution. I know it has taken some time, but now they have finally decided to complete it by Nov. 30."
Many ordinary Maldivians saw the poll as a chance to vote against Gayoom, saying revenues from 89 luxury island resorts -- some charging well over $1,000 a night -- are not fairly distributed to the half the population who live on a dollar a day.
The resorts accounted directly for 35 percent of the island's $700 million gross domestic product in 2006, while tourism and related sectors accounted for around 85 percent of foreign exchange revenues.
Gayoom said he plans to license more than 50 new resorts over the next 3-5 years in a bid to boost tourism and revenues.Source: Reuters India