New Political Era for the Maldives

The first multi-party elections held in the Maldives have brought to power a onetime political prisoner, Mohammed Nasheed, and caused the exit of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the man who put him in jail.

It is a remarkable transition. In the 30 years since Gayoom, 71, assumed power over the island nation of 385,000 people, there had been no challenge to his authority. It was an offense, in fact, to aspire for the top office, punishable by exile to some uninhabited dot among the sprinkling of 1,190 coral islets in the Arabian Sea south of India. In the Maldives’ last six elections, Gayoom had stood alone in yes-no referendums. He claimed that he had been re-elected by more than 90 percent of them each time.

In 2003, however, the serially arrested Nasheed produced evidence that a 19-year-old youth had been tortured to death by Gayoom's secret police, which resulted in prison riots. International revulsion forced Gayoom in 2004 to lift the ban on opposition parties, which ultimately led to the October 8 multi-party elections.

Dramatic political change was visible, however, even on the eve of the elections. For the first time, opposition parties were allowed to freely criticize government policies. The Ministry of Legal Reform, Information and Arts gave comprehensive updates each week that not only described legislation in the pipeline but described impartially the activities of the political parties.

The multi-party elections were generally peaceful, with 86 percent of the country’s 209,000 voters turning out for the October 29 polls. Nasheed took 54 percent of the vote to Gayoom's 46 percent in elections monitored by 20 international observers from the European Union, United Nations and the Commonwealth in addition to a wealth of domestic poll-watchers.

The Commonwealth team described the election as reasonably credible, largely due to the high level of inclusiveness, transparency, participation and its competitive nature. It also stated that problems emanating from the 22-day time line and voter registration problems did compromise some aspects of the election.

In primary elections held October 8, Gayoom polled 71,731 votes (40.63 percent). Nasheed of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) got 44293 (25.09 percent). As no candidate got more than 50 percent of votes required for simple majority it necessitated second round. In the runoff, all opposition parties formed a coalition and supported Nasheed.

The first round was a mandate for change. But Gayoom failed to see the writing on the wall and the result was defeat. Gayoom’s supporters thought it would be easier for him to cover the gap of 10 percent than it was for Nasheed to get additional 25 percent. They were wrong.

What happened next was equally unusual, in light of the three decades of violent and repressive government one-party repression that had preceded the election. Nasheed, now 41, had repeatedly been arrested for political activity and was named a Prisoner of Conscience by Amnesty International in 1991. After being freed, he was sentenced to three years in prison in 1992, but was released in 1993, only to be rearrested in 1994, 1995 and 1996 and jailed. In 2000, however, he was elected to Parliament, only to be sentenced to 2-1/2 years of banishment in 2001. He was granted political asylum in the UK in 2004.

The election was bitter, divisive and characterized by name-calling. Court cases were filed against both Gayoom and Nasheed questioning the legitimacy of their candidatures although both were rejected by the Maldives Supreme Court.

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Nonetheless, after the Maldives Election Commission announced the unofficial result, Gayoom immediately offered his full support to the president-elect.

“I don't like being beaten in sports,” he said in a speech to the nation. “I don't like being beaten in politics. But it is a fact of life that sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. In that spirit, I accept this verdict of the people,”

For his part Nasheed offered substantial reforms, including media freedom. He has also promised that there would be no witch-hunting and assured full security along with a pension to Gayoom, who has decided to remain in the country unlike his predecessors, who fled after losing.

Gayoom’s supporters give him credit for developing tourism, which accounts for 28 percent of gross domestic product and more than 60 percent of foreign exchange receipts. More than 90 percent of government tax revenue comes from import duties and tourism-related taxes in a country whose only natural resource is fish. In a country whose highest point is also only 2.4 meters above sea level, Gayoom was one of the first leaders to bring the perils of global warming to world attention.

At the Commonwealth Conference in Vancouver in 1987 he warned fellow leaders that if global warming causes the oceans to rise just 36 cm the low-lying Maldives would be submerged and his country would disappear from the world map. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change already estimates a sea-level rise for the next 100 years of about 49 cm, with a range of uncertainty of 20-86 cm. The islands were so badly hit by the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 that half the capital of Mali was submerged and all of it would have been except for a sea wall that protected parts of it. Islets were so badly battered that some were wiped out altogether and the country’s maps had to be redrawn to account for new shapes.

Gayoom’s critics, however, blame him for many of the country’s ills and charge that only he and his cronies have benefited from tourism. Some 40 percent of the Maldives’ citizens live on less than US$1 a day despite the glittering hotels and resorts that line the white-sand beaches. Poverty and growing social discord have led to rising Islamic extremism and attacks on tourists.

There are other problems. Tourism is in decline and likely to face problems not only over concerns about Islamic extremism but from the global financial crisis, which is cutting into discretionary incomes across the planet. The country is under IMF pressure to ease its external debt of about US$500 million and trim a huge government payroll. The archipelago also faces high child malnutrition, a major heroin problem and the rising sea levels.

Nasheed will also inherit a presidency with far fewer powers, thanks to the political reforms he has been campaigning for. He said he plans to deal with some of these problems by raising resources from international financial institutions and by selling off unwanted expensive items owned by the government, proposals that will leave him with considerable problems, given the fact that annual government revenues are US$588 million against expenditures of US$671 million, an annual shortfall of 15.1 percent.

The multi-party election has shown that it has a large number of educated and capable people who are willing to participate in governing the country. Though only two will get chance this time as president and vice president, the pool of these talented people will be there. All students are required to attend to the 12th grade and the literacy rate is 96.3 percent.

However, in the meantime, given the slowly submerging nation’s daunting problems, the elected leaders will have to make the democracy work for the people so that they have confidence in the system.