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First Maldives multi-party election due in 2008

Written by: Staff
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COLOMBO, Mar 28 (Reuters) The Maldives said today it had extended until late 2008 a self-imposed deadline to implement widespread democratic reforms in the Indian Ocean island chain, when it will hold its first multi-party elections.

President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, in power since 1978 and Asia's longest-serving ruler, vowed in 2004 to ease his grip on power and revamp the archipelago's political system in the face of harsh criticism of his government's human rights record.

The Maldives said in December it was unable to deliver on a pledge to implement reforms as promised by early 2006, accusing its main political opponents of seeking to stall the process.

Gayoom's promises to limit the term of the presidency, revise the constitution to appoint a prime minister, strengthen the judiciary and safeguard human rights are now due to be in place before presidential and multi-party parliamentary elections due between July-October 2008.

''All the reforms ... would be implemented by October 2008,'' Foreign Minister Ahmed Shaheed told Reuters by telephone from the Maldivian capital of Male, outlining a new reform agenda roadmap.

''What we are doing is inviting everyone to contribute to the process in really breaking with tradition and creating a modern, stable democracy,'' he added.

A new draft constitution for the mainly Sunni Muslim nation of 300,000 people, who inhabit the chain of 1,200 tiny island dotted 500 miles off the toe of India, will be ready by the end of May and ratified by mid-2007, Shaheed said.

In a rare show of unity, the Maldivian Democratic Party -- who accuse the government of jailing its leading members on trumped up terrorism charges -- embraced the new reform plan.

RARE UNITY ''I would welcome the roadmap because it is timebound and things are mapped out quite clearly,'' said MDP founder Mohamed Latheef, who lives in self-imposed exile in neighbouring Sri Lanka.

''On the face of it it looks good ... it contains dates and timeframes that we have been asking for,'' he added. ''My problem is that (Gayoom) has reneged in the past so often that I find it very difficult to believe that he is genuine.'' Latheef said his party had dropped its threat to bring the luxury tourism-dependent economy to a grinding halt through strikes and civil disobedience, and was willing to give the government a chance.

But the MDP also want Gayoom to step down early and hold elections as soon as the new constitution is ready -- which he refuses to do.

''The MDP is caught in a dilemma. On the one hand I think they do want to bring reform to the country but on the other hand they also want to evict the president, and I don't think the two are compatible,'' Shaheed said.

In June, the Maldives allowed the formation of political parties, which were effectively banned under the constitution until then. But Gayoom's critics accuse him of acting like an autocratic Sultan of old and of dragging his feet on multi-party elections.

''What is very alarming is that he's saying the elections will be in 2008. When the constitution is done, they should be held faster,'' said Latheef.

Gayoom's trusted aides continue to run the government -- and the lucrative tourist resorts which form the backbone of the island chain's 700 million dollars economy -- while half of the population lives on a dollar a day.

REUTERS DKS RK1640

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