MALE (Reuters) - Maldives President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom won a landmark referendum on Sunday to adopt a U.S.-style presidential system in the remote Indian Ocean island chain, in a vote seen as an acid test for Asia's longest serving ruler.
Gayoom had advocated a presidential system, while the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party pushed for a British-style parliamentary system in a vote it billed as referendum on his 29-year rule they describe as a dictatorship.
Officials said Gayoom and his Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party's (DRP) presidential model choice won 62 percent of the vote, with 38 percent against. Just over 150,000 of a total electorate of 193,000 turned out to vote in a land best known for luxury honeymoons and Hollywood star visitors such as Tom Cruise.
"This referendum was not about my leadership, it was about what form of government the people wanted to have in the future," Gayoom told a news conference.
"But (with) this result, I am very much in position to say I am very happy with the endorsement, the massive endorsement that the people has given to our party position in the referendum," he added, rejecting opposition charges of vote-rigging and calling for cross-party unity.
Critics say Gayoom, who aides say will run again in the first multi-party election due next year, is dragging his feet on pledged democratising reforms and say it is time he went.
Gayoom's DRP and its rival MDP accused each other of voter intimidation and breaking election rules. Election officials said ballot papers were short at some stations, and ordered a recount of one ballot box, but said overall the vote appeared to be fair.
"It is an ill-gotten result ... Look at how they used state media, bribery, corruption, voter intimidation and threats to withhold jobs," said MDP spokeswoman Mariya Didi.
"It comes as no surprise. The MDP always said giving ballot boxes to election officials appointed by the president was like taking Dracula to the blood bank."
Gayoom's critics say he is stalling on implementing a raft of democratic reforms pledged in late 2004 to revamp the power structure in the face of harsh criticism of the government's rights record.
His opponents billed a vote for a parliamentary system as a vote for him to quit, saying revenues from 89 luxury island resorts -- some charging well over $1,000 a night for rooms on stilts over azure lagoons -- are not benefiting the half of the population who live in poverty on a dollar a day.
"The money is not distributed to the people. There are no rights for workers, we have a lot of problems," said 35-year resort worker Zara, who gave a nickname for fear of retribution for speaking out against Gayoom.
"We don't even have electricity on my native island."
Zara earns $200 a month working at a luxury resort island, and must rely on tips from customers to supplement his income.
"He is not a good president, he has been cheating the public. I wanted change," he added, traditional wooden ferries bobbing in the clear waters behind him that have made the cluster a top scuba destination.
Dissent has also flared within the ranks of Gayoom's cabinet, which under existing rules he handpicks and appoints.
Two leading members of his government quit earlier this month, accusing him of stalling on a new constitution and judicial independence in a country that only legalised the existence of political parties in 2005.