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Offline mayya

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Maldives gears up to choose new president
« on: September 07, 2013, 18:58:29 PM »

Maldives gears up to choose new president

Observers hope the result of Saturday's election will bring stability to the troubled Islamic nation of 450,000 people

Nicholas Milton in Male and Jason Burke, Friday 6 September 2013 19.11 BST

Former president Mohamed Nasheed is confident he will win the election in the first round, but some believe the result will be close. Photograph: Sinan Hussain/AP

The dark rainclouds blow in from the Indian ocean, the streets are decked with candidates' colours, and the cafes are noisy with political debate: it's election time in the Maldives.

On Saturday nearly half the 450,000 inhabitants of this remote archipelago – better known for luxury tourism than political debate – are expected to vote to choose their next president.

The result, many observers hope, may bring a new stability to the increasingly troubled nation and could even chart a way for larger nations across the Islamic world undergoing rapid and traumatic change.

"I've always said what happens in Maldives first, happens in the Middle East later," Mohamed Nasheed, the former president, told reporters in the capital, Male, this week.

Regional powers are watching closely. India has deep commercial and diplomatic links with the Maldives. Sri Lanka has cultural and other ties. China too is keenly interested in developments in the strategically situated island nation.

Nasheed, 46, is the candidate of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and the only figure who is known internationally. The veteran human rights activist and climate change campaigner is fighting to regain the presidency. Though he won the polls that ended the three-decade autocratic rule of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in 2008, early optimism swiftly evaporated.

In February 2012, after a series of escalating clashes over issues such as the independence of the judiciary and alleged "anti-Islamic" policies in the Sunni Muslim nation, Nasheed was forced to resign.

Supporters claim he was a victim of a coup d'etat and say that there is now an opportunity to allow the MDP to complete its ambitious welfare programme.

Mohamed Rafeeu, 50, an electrical engineer at Male airport, said he wanted Nasheed to "serve a full [five-year] term".

"In his three years [in power] he built over a thousand houses, brought in a pension, built schools and provided transport between the islands. He wanted to build 10,000 houses but the coup stopped that. The people should give Nasheed the chance to serve a full term."

Nasheed says he will win the two-round election outright this weekend. He will need more than half the votes to avoid a runoff in three weeks, which could see him facing the consolidated support of all his rival candidates.

"There is no power stronger than the power of the people," he told reporters.

But observers suggest the results of Saturday's poll may be close and that a second round is probable. Though Nasheed and the well-organised MDP dominate urban, youthful constituencies, rivals have strong support among older people, much of the business community, religious groups and in the outlying islands which have seen less development in recent years.

Candidates include the outgoing president Mohammed Waheed and Gasim Ibrahim, a hugely wealthy tycoon.

Some Maldivians appear nostalgic for the stability of the long decades of Gayoom's rule, particularly elements of the security forces. The island's police chief used Twitter six days ago to thank the former president for founding the country's police service. His statement prompted accusations of bias from the MDP.

Ahmed Mumthaz, a 31 year old fisherman, said he would vote for Abdullah Yameen, the half brother of the former ruler whose campaign is seen as the biggest threat to Nasheed returning to power.

Visiting Male from his home island Velassaru, in the far south of the archipelago, Mumthaz, speaking in Male's bustling fish market, said Yameen was "the only one who would provide a real change of government".

"Fishing is in a bad way. Stocks are decling and prices are falling. Nasheed would take us backwards, Waheed did nothing when he was President. And Qasim is all about big money," he said.

The coming of democratic politics to the Maldives, a sultanate for many centuries, then a British protectorate from 1887 until full independence in 1965, has raised difficult social, religious and political questions.

The near 1 million foreign tourists who visit each year rarely leave their resorts, where consumption of alcohol is tolerated. They see little of the 900-year-old Muslim culture of the islands. Through his long rule Gayoom, encouraged "moderate" strands of Islam which bolstered his authority, though more conservative and more politicised strands of Muslim practice and thought made inroads.

Recent years have seen increased attendance at mosques, more men growing beards as a sign of devotion, and more women forgoing traditional colourful dress and donning headscarves. Such trends mirror those elsewhere in the Islamic world and have intensified since Gayoom left power.

There has also been rapid economic development and wide-reaching social change. Though portrayed in tourist literature as an island paradise, the Maldives suffers high levels of unemployment, severe environmental problems, overcrowding, drug abuse as well as a new gang culture and rising crime.

Though the MDP has tried to keep the debate centred on reviving economic growth – which slowed to 3.4% in 2012 from 7.0% in 2011 as tourism slumped, according to the Asian Development Bank – questions of identity and faith have been pushed to the forefront.

Nasheed has tried to foster interfaith dialogue and has spoken about the need for a new moderate Islamic culture. His opponents have accused him of being anti-Islamic and played up their own religious credentials.

Traditional practices and views also remain strong, particularly on outlying islands. Earlier this week a coconut was seized by police in the south of the archipelago following suspicions that it was part of a bid to use black magic to influence the poll results.

The rights of women have also become an major topic of debate.

Dunya Maumoon, daughter of Gayoom, and head of the women's wing of the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM), said she was proud of new laws against domestic violence introduced under the outgoing president.

"It was a landmark piece of legislation as it's the first time women's right to justice has been recognised in Maldives. In our manifesto, we have policies which will benefit women such as ... more awareness of victims ... and a more equitable settlement after divorce," Maumoon told the Guardian.

There are fears that, with politics so polarised, even a clear result that is universally accepted as credible may not bring calm. Parliamentary elections are due to be held next year and could prompt new instability.

Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, last week called on "all Maldivians to work together in a constructive manner toward national harmony and democratic consolidation."

Fanan Habeeb, a 22-year-old office worker in Male, said her priority was "peace for this country". "There has been too much violence on the streets," she said.