The election was postponed from 31 December, days after the tsunami crashed into many of the country's 1200 islands, killing 82 people and destroying resorts famed for their white sand beaches and some of the world's best scuba diving.

The opposition dismisses the election as a sham, saying a crackdown on President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom's opponents in the months leading up to the poll crippled their campaign.

Four key candidates were cleared of treason charges earlier this month.

Political parties are banned in the Maldives and all 149 candidates running in the archipelago's 199 inhabited islands are vying as independents for 42 seats.

Early voters trickled through the narrow streets of the capital, Male, residents said on Saturday.

Officials stripped election posters off walls around polling stations as required by law.

"It is all going smoothly. The election of a fresh parliament is a crucial step in this initiative," said government spokesman Ahmed Shaheed, referring to proposed reforms.

Amendments

Gayoom has promised amendments to the constitution including one that would change the way the president is elected. 

At least 82 people have been
killed by the tsunami on the island 

Now, a single candidate chosen by parliament seeks the endorsement of voters, a system that has helped Gayoom keep power for 26 years.

All members of parliament become members of a special assembly debating constitutional reform.

The assembly also has 50 members elected directly in a separate process.

The Maldivian Democratic Party, based in nearby Sri Lanka, has endorsed several candidates and is counting on doubling the number of pro-reform members in parliament, where eight seats are filled by presidential appointees.

"We have about 30 pro-reform candidates contesting and ... if there is no outright robbing of votes, we expect about 14 reform-minded people to get elected," party spokesman Muhammad Latif said.

Criticism

Criticism of Gayoom has been growing in recent months.

In August, police used truncheons and teargas to quell anti-government protests in a quay-side square in Male.

Maldives' economy has taken a
big hit because of the tsunami

At least four prominent opponents were charged last month with treason and the opposition said Gayoom was trying to fix the parliamentary elections by putting rivals behind bars.

After the tsunami crashed into the islands on 26 December, Gayoom dropped charges against a number of opponents, saying it was a conciliatory gesture at a time of tragedy.


Although the islands were spared the worst of the tsunami, which killed more than 226,000 people around the Indian Ocean, the economy took a big hit.

Monitors

About 157,000 people, just over half the population, are eligible to vote.

The Commonwealth has sent election monitors.

Shaheed said first results could be expected late on Saturday but counting would take several days.