By Dr. Abdul
The Maldives, a South Asian Muslim country of nearly 1,200 islands, voted on Oct 08 in its first multi-party presidential elections as per new Constitution. The first multi-party presidential polls in the Maldives have opened with President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, 71, seeking a seventh term in power. President Gayoom of Maldivian People’s Party is Asia‘s longest serving leader and has been in power for more than 30 years. The polls are the culmination of reforms he introduced and 208,000 people are eligible to vote for the 50-seated Parliament. The campaign has been hard fought and lively, with noisy late-night rallies in the capital, Male. Candidates have used sea planes to canvas for votes among the hundreds of islands that make up the archipelago.
The President of the Maldives, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, on 07 August 2008 ratified a new constitution bringing in key democratic changes after years of autocratic rule. It has paved the way for the first multi-party presidential elections in the Indian Ocean islands. A reform process began after widespread protests that were sparked by the death of a prisoner in jail in 2003. It also abolished the old style of voting for president, where a parliament-approved candidate stood in a referendum. Those elections saw Gayoom returned to power six times with what he said was over 90 percent of the vote.
President Gayoom is Asia‘s longest-serving leader, having held power in the coral-fringed atolls since 1978. Under him, tourism has made the Maldives the most prosperous country in South Asia but his political opponents have described him as a dictator who has ruled like the Sultans of old. He has built South Asia‘s richest nation, per capita, thanks to dozens of resorts on white sand beaches and crystal clear waters — where hotels charge up to 15,000 dollars a night. There have been advances in education, health and life expectancy on the Muslim archipelago. He is seeking a seventh term running the archipelago of 300,000 mostly Sunni Muslims, which in the past he has been accused of ruling like a personal sultanate — a form of government abolished there in 1968.
President Gayoom’s bedrock support is on the islands and he has been traveling by plane across the atolls to encourage people to vote. “If you want a leader who will protect these freedoms, our religion and our culture, then vote for me,” he told supporters, promising “five more dynamic years”. President Gayoom’s bedrock support is on the islands and he has been traveling by plane across the atolls to encourage people to vote.
President Gayoom has urged voters to back him because he is a “safe pair of hands” who will keep the country’s economy – especially its important tourism sector – functioning smoothly. The president argues that after 30 years of his leadership, the Maldives has become South Asia‘s richest economy, at the forefront of the international battle against climate change and on the verge of becoming a fully fledged “democracy”.
The president is facing five challengers, some of whom have been strongly critical of his “dictatorial and bullying” style of leadership. The main challenger to President Gayoom is Mohamed “Anni” Nasheed of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) – one of his fiercest critics and a former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience. Other prominent opponents of the president include former attorney general Hassan Saeed and local business magnate Ghaseem Ibrahim.
Gayoom says he can fight off any challenger and win more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a run-off but with no reliable opinion polls, the outcome is seen as impossible to predict. He has accused his rivals of dirty tricks, taking out defamation cases against two opposition politicians who accused him of stealing 40 million dollars of tsunami aid and stashing away tens of millions more in a foreign bank account.
Nasheed accused Gayoom of keeping several of his family members in top government posts and country is troubled by inequitable distribution of wealth, bored youths and drugs. “From this stage, it is about the personality, who is more credible, more trustworthy,” Nasheed said, if he is elected to power his administration would comprise people from all parties and – unlike the president – he would ban his relatives from holding key government jobs. Nasheed has also accused President Gayoom of “dirty tricks” including what he says is the false allegation that the MDP wants to convert everyone to Christianity. His supporters like to paint him as the Maldives‘ very own Nelson Mandela, while President Gayoom is depicted in the role of Robert Mugabe.
But the election — a test for the Muslim nation’s often tense transition to democracy — was hit by allegations of rigging, with the main opposition party claiming large numbers of its members had been removed from the electoral roll. However, the Election Commission spokesman Mohammed Ibrahim Tolal said he was unaware of any complaints. Turnout appeared to be strong in Male, with large queues outside polling stations despite heavy rain. The elections are the first in which Gayoom — who has served six terms under a one-candidate system — has had to face any serious competition.
Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s message is that he has experience, and stands for stability and continued economic growth. Now he says to complete a transition to democracy he needs more time in office. Everywhere people lined the jetties to greet the president, clapping, cheering, singing and dancing.
Both President Gayoom and Nasheed say they are convinced of victory in the poll. But with six candidates running it may be that neither gets more than 50% of the vote, so the elections will go into a second round. There are many problems for the newly elected president to confront including a heroin problem among the young and the threat caused by rising sea levels which environmentalists say could wash the country away. A U.N. climate change panel is predicting seas are likely to rise up to 59 cm (2 ft) by 2100, and most of the Maldives’ islands are no higher than 1.5 m (4 feet) above sea level. The Maldives are suffering from increasing drug use, worsening crime and a chronic housing shortage in the cramped island capital Male. The country suffered its first “terror attack” a year ago, with Islamic militants blamed for bombing a park in Male and wounding a dozen tourists. Whoever wins will inherit two major challenges — sustaining an economy dependent on tourism and fishing, and rising sea levels.
The poll in the sleepy Maldives, best known as a tropical luxury hideaway for Hollywood stars, is the culmination of years of agitation for democratic reforms. The election follows reforms introduced after Gayoom was accused of crushing pro-democracy protests in 2004. If no candidate gets more than 50% of the votes, a second round of polling will be held. Security around him has been tight – in January an islander tried to stab him, but he was foiled by a boy scout who fought the attacker.
President Gayoom has already said he is sure to win a seventh term in power consecutively. Gayoom has promised to hand over power peacefully if he loses. President Gayoom insists that he is not running out of steam after three decades at the top and wants to serve another five years to complete his reform course successfully.