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Mohamed Nasheed as President of Maldives



by Dr. Abdul Ruff

(December 01, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) Of course, one of the world's longest-serving rulers has just lost his job. Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, born in Male in 1937, educated in Sri Lanka and Egypt and served as transport minister under President Ibrahim Nasir, has been President of the Maldives, a South Asian Muslim country comprsing a group of islands in the Indian Ocean, for 30 years. He was re-elected six times, but has been declared defeated the seventh time, though unexpectedly, by Mohamed Nasheed from the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).

Mohamed Nasheed, who beat Gayoom to win the country's first democratic polls, has been sworn in as new president of the Maldives at a ceremony televised live from a convention centre in the capital Male. If no candidate gets more than 50% of the votes, a second round of polling will be held. In the first multi-party elections held in the Maldives, President Gayoom won the first round last month, but failed to secure the 50% needed for outright victory. A run-off was held on 28 October which was won by Nasheed, after falling short of an absolute majority in the first round; Nasheed united opposition support in the run-off winning 54% of the vote to Gayoom's 46%, although how he has managed to win power still remains almost a puzzle, even with opposition unity.

Nasheed said his victory over Gayoom - Asia's longest-serving leader - showed the people of the Maldives were embracing the future. The defeat of Gayoom has been ascribed to the new Constitutional changes and the reforms. The new constitution ratified in August 2008 contained provisions for separating the country's executive and legislature and enshrined a bill of rights. It also provided for the country's first multi-party presidential elections to take place. Parliament voted to introduce a multi-party democracy in 2005. Previously, political parties had been banned, although there had been no official ban on political activity. In 2006 President Gayoom presented a "roadmap" for the democratic reforms, which he said were meant to enhance human rights, independence of the judiciary and multi-party politics. He had come under growing pressure, with human rights groups accusing him of running an autocratic state and unprecedented anti-government violence flaring in the streets.

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.

Nasheed accused Gayoom of keeping several of his family members in top government posts. Until his poll defeat in 2008, Gayoom was

Asia's longest-serving leader. He was re-elected for a record sixth five-year term in 2003, having first taken office in 1978. The Maldives has been relatively stable under his rule, despite attempted coups in the 1980s. President Gayoom was saved from a would-be assassin wielding a kitchen knife in January 2008.

Maldives

Republic of Maldives is the smallest Asian country in terms of population. It is also the smallest predominantly Muslim nation in the world. The Maldives, is an island nation consisting of a group of atolls stretching south of India's Lakshadweep islands between the Minicoy and the Chargos archipelagoes, and about seven hundred kilometres (435 mi) south-west of Sri Lanka in the Laccadive Sea of Indian Ocean. Adherence to Islam is required for citizenship by a revision of the constitution in 2008. Today Tourism, Maldives' largest industry, accounts for 28% of GDP and more than 60% of the Maldives' foreign exchange receipts. Over 90% of government tax revenue comes from import duties and tourism-related taxes. Fishing is the second leading sector. Agriculture and manufacturing continue to play a lesser role in the economy, constrained by the limited availability of cultivable land and the shortage of domestic labor. Most staple foods must be imported.

Future

The election was considered the culmination of reforms in the Indian Ocean islands that followed pro-democracy street protests and international pressure. Gayoom, 71, had ruled the Maldives uncontested since 1978, elected back into office six times by referendums. Gayoom's supporters had credited him with overseeing an economic expansion fuelled by tourism. But Gayoom's critics accused him of being dictatorial.

Many Maldivians consider the 71-year-old Gayoom a hero who has transformed a fishing culture into a tourist nation whose white sandy beaches lure well-heeled Western tourists. 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 of 300,000 mostly Sunni Muslims.

The Maldives is made up of a chain of nearly 1,200 islands, most of them uninhabited, which lie off the Indian sub-continent. None of the coral islands measures more than 1.8 metres (six feet) above sea level, making the country vulnerable to a rise in sea levels associated with global warming. The Maldives is the lowest nation in the world. Its highest land is little more than two metres above sea level. Nasheed made no mention of his idea of saving the people of the Indian Ocean archipelago from rising sea levels by buying them a new homeland. The United Nations estimates that sea levels may rise globally by nearly 60 centimetres this century. Earlier, Nasheed had said the gradual rise in sea levels caused by global warming meant the islanders may eventually be forced to resettle elsewhere.

There is a fear that as sea levels rise, island countries such as the Maldives, and some Pacific territories, will simply be swamped and disappear. 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.

New Leader: a Bold Dissident

Born in 1967, Nasheed was educated in Sri Lanka and Britain, and has a degree in maritime engineering. The man who has won the election to become the next president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, is arguably the country's most famous political activist. He has now also earned a place in the history books as the person who brought an end to the 30-year rule of Gayoom - Asia's longest serving leader.

Nasheed was one of the earliest and boldest dissidents in the islands, pursuing an early career as a journalist until he was persecuted for his writing. In the early 1990s he established a reputation for his political commentaries in the Sangu magazine at a time when vocal criticism of the government was almost non-existent. Sangu was later banned, and he was put under house arrest and imprisoned after giving an interview to the international press about his ill-treatment in detention. Nasheed spent 18 months in solitary confinement, alleging torture at the hands of the then National Security Services (NSS), which has since been split into the police and armed forces. Punishments included severe sleep and water deprivation, being fed food with crushed glass and being chained to a chair outside for 12 days.

After spending some time abroad upon his release, Nasheed was later jailed again for political writing, becoming an Amnesty Prisoner of Conscience in 1997. During periods spent in jail, he studied and later wrote three books on Maldivian history both in English and the local Dhivehi script. Elected as an MP in 1999, he was later forced from his seat following a theft charge which was widely condemned at the time as politically motivated. He was prosecuted for taking files from outside the former residence of ex-President Ibrahim Nasir, an action classed by the state as theft. In 2001 he unsuccessfully tried - along with other dissident politicians - to register the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). In September 2003, he intervened when 19-year-old Hassan Evan Naseem died in the country's largest prison, asking a doctor to see the body before the death certificate was signed. It was later found he was tortured to death in by eight NSS officers. The event marked a turning point in the country's history, sparking mass street and jail riots which resulted in the shooting of three prisoners.

In his inaugural speech, Nasheed promised to strengthen democracy and to combat poverty and drug abuse. Nasheed argues that his party seeks to offer a vision of a new Maldives, with campaign materials showing petals of white flowers representing pledges, including better transport, education and housing.

Reform

Mohamed Nasheed had long been at the forefront of efforts to push Gayoom towards democratization, organizing the Maldives' main opposition party while exile in Britain. Before seeking refuge abroad, he was repeatedly jailed for his political activities, and says he was tortured twice while in prison. He returned from the UK to the Maldives in 2005, after parliament voted to lift a ban on political parties. After the election, the new president promised a "smooth transition to democracy" and more freedom, as well as action to combat corruption, widely seen to have flourished in decades of authoritarian rule.

Along with other reformists, Nasheed finally managed to register the MDP on 26 June 2005. But two months later he was arrested again after staging a sit-in in Male's Republican Square in protest over police handling of "Black Friday" demonstrations a year earlier. In frustration at the slow pace of reforms, the MDP was close to calling for a revolution in November 2006. That resulted in the defection of some of its senior members who argued that that the party should be pursuing a path of diplomacy and negotiation instead. But grassroots activists remained loyal, and the MDP continued to lobby for freedom of speech and assembly. Between then and now, Nasheed oversaw the evolution of his party from an anti-Gayoom group into a government-in-waiting, successfully rebranding its identity. In July, he and other party leaders visited Delhi to foster relations with the Indian government, which has previously had a close relationship to Gayoom.

Nasheed had been imprisoned more than 20 times by Gayoom. He has insisted he will not bring corruption charges against his predecessor, saying the way Gayoom is treated will be a "test of our democracy". To his supporters Nasheed is a latter day Nelson Mandela, overcoming the hardships of prison to secure an inspirational election win against the odds. Nasheed - a former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience - is. He has been a constant critic of the regime of Gayoom over the years and has spent long periods in jail for his political activities.

Post-script

The 41-year-old now finds himself on the verge of leading a tiny nation - made up of about of 1,192 islands off the tip of India - whose very existence is under threat from global warming. A former political prisoner, Mohamed Nasheed known locally as 'Anni' was elected in the Maldives' first multi-party presidential elections in October 2008, ending President Abdul Gayoom's 30-year rule that did add many opportunites and created fortunes in Maldives. The change he represents is expected to bring about colossal opportunities for majority of people there.

The challenges facing the new president Nasheed also include threats to the largely tourism-based economy posed by the global credit crisis, a widespread drugs problem and growing radical Islamist activity. Many Maldivians live in poverty, in spite of the fact that the country has developed its infrastructure and industries, including the fisheries sector, and has boosted health care, education and literacy. Added to their owes, the Maldives was hit by the December 2004 Asian tsunami. Homes and resorts were devastated by the waves, precipitating a major rebuilding program.

Mohamed Nasheed, who now lives in the capital island of Male with his wife, who works for the UN, and two daughters, argued throughout the presidential campaign that the Maldives faced other grave challenges: maintaining its lucrative tourist trade, ensuring a fairer distribution of wealth and tackling the drugs culture among bored youths. Depicting himself as a harbinger of change throughout the campaign, Nasheed has pledged economic prosperity through privatization once he was in power. His critics say that he has little policy-making experience beyond his direct action campaigns against the government. His more strident detractors during the campaign accused him of trying to spread Christianity to the Islamic nation and hence he had the indirect support of the some of the western powers and their media. It is argued that Nasheed - a Sunni Muslim - enjoyed close links to foreign organizations such as Britain's Conservative Party which undermined the country's faith. He has strenuously denied the allegations. Nasheed, the new leader, should put his policies and nation building related thoughts in order before embarking upon any worthwhile economic or political reform.
- Sri Lanka Guardian

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