With ballot boxes whisked by motor launch to outlying coral islands, Maldivians voted on Saturday in a referendum to choose between a British-style parliament and a U.S.-style presidency -- seen as a litmus test for Asia's longest-serving ruler.
As polls opened at schools and the sports stadium in the island cluster capital of Male, many, like 45-year-old speed boat company manager Ibrahim Mohamed, hoped the vote would send a signal that it was time for President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom to go after 29 years in power.
Gayoom's critics say he is stalling on implementing a raft of democratising reforms pledged in late 2004 to revamp the power structure in the nation of 300,000 mostly Sunni Muslims in response to criticism of his government's rights record.
"For me it is not a vote for a parliamentary or presidential system. It is a question of voting yes or no for the existing president, and I say no," said Mohamed. "I believe the reform process will only start after changing this government."
"The islands have prospered, but it has not been equal. We don't have proper hospital facilities. Some islanders are living in very poor conditions," he added. "It is time for him to go."
Gayoom proposes adopting a presidential system to replace what government officials themselves have described as an autocratic sultanate of old, while his main Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) opponents want a parliamentary system.
Whatever the result, Gayoom says he intends to run for another term in the island's first multi-party elections next year, to see his reforms through, and hopes to retire early by 2010.
But his opponents say a vote for a parliamentary system is a vote against him.
Pressure on Gayoom is mounting from within his own ranks.
Two leading figures of his own cabinet, which under the present system he handpicks and appoints, quit his government earlier this month, accusing him of stalling on a new constitution and independence of the judiciary.
Gayoom's critics accuse him of cracking down on dissenting views in the Indian Ocean archipelago to hold on to power and maintain control of tourism resorts, which rake in millions of tourist dollars each year.
CALLS FOR CHANGE
Many ordinary Maldivians feel cheated, and say the revenues from the island's 89 cash cow luxury island resorts, where accommodation in pavilions on stilts over azure lagoons can run to well over $1,000 a night, is not trickling down to the half the population who live in poverty on a dollar a day.
"The current regime has not given any opportunities to the young," said 31-year-old Ahmed Marzook, a former member of the Maldives national soccer team, as workers arrived by ferryboat in the crystalline waters that have given the island's a reputation as a one of the world's top scuba spots and a magnet for Hollywood jetsetters such as Tom Cruise.
"There's nowhere we can go for higher education. There's not one university."
Marzook said local businessmen had helped fund him to study at Solent University, in southern England, but at 7,900 pounds ($15,650) a year for tuition alone, the funds weren't enough and he was now back in the Maldives trying to raise more to finish his course.
The government on Saturday accused MDP supporters of attacking three elderly voters because they backed the president, and said the party had broken election rules by refusing to take down electioneering hoardings and posters.
Officials say they are pushing on with plans for reforms such as freedom of assembly -- the chain of 1,200 mostly uninhabited islands 500 miles (800 km) off the toe of India only legalised the existence of political parties in 2005.
"We need these reforms because socio-economic progress ... in recent years has increased expectations," said reformist Foreign Minister Ahmed Shaheed. "We also need to subscribe to international norms and values of human rights and democracy."
"Because we rely on tourism, we need to update our legal system to protect people's rights and investment."
Gayoom reserved comment on the referendum, saying he was bound by election campaign laws.
"My lips are sealed," the diminutive leader told Reuters after registering his own vote at a school in Male. "It is the right of every citizen to vote today, so I've come to do so too."
Initial results of the vote count are due out late on Saturday.