Friday, August 17, 2007

Maldives president faces test of power

Residents of the tropical islands of the Maldives will tomorrow take part in a historic vote to decide the future political direction of their country.

After years under the same leadership, Maldivians are being given the chance to switch to either an executive US-style presidential system or to elect a Westminster-style parliament, and local opinion is completely divided.

Sitting in the Indian Ocean just over 400 miles south-west of Sri Lanka, the former British protectorate attracts thousands of UK tourists each year, with most staying at expensive hotels located on some of the country's 1,200 isolated islands. Many would have no idea of the huge changes happening in the lives of some 370,000 Maldivians.

Saturday's national referendum comes after years of simmering political unrest in the largely Muslim country. Since 2003, protesters have taken to the streets on several occasions to demand greater civil rights and demonstrate against the power of the country's autocratic leader, President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who heads the leading Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party.

The situation came to a head last autumn when opposition activists planned a large rally for November 10 to push the government into faster reforms. The government accused protesters of having a "violent agenda" and of plotting "to overthrow the government illegally". Tensions grew and organisers eventually cancelled the rally amid security fears after more than 100 people were reported to have been arrested.

Officially Asia's longest serving ruler, President Gayoom, a former academic, has led the presidential republic as the head of state, head of government, commander-in-chief of the armed forces and leader of the national police force for 29 years. But things are slowly changing.

Voters, rather than just politicians, can now directly elect their president and political parties have been permitted to operate in the country since 2005, after the president launched his Agenda for Democracy, Human Rights and Reform.

This set out promises to expand the fundamental rights of citizens under a new national constitution, create an independent judiciary and police, and even open the way for women to stand for president. Critics, however, say that reforms have been slow.

Human rights groups including Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders have criticised the country for failing to abide by international standards. Detainees in the country's prisons are still being tortured and ill-treated, Amnesty said in its 2007 report, adding that "political freedom continues to be undermined by the slow pace of constitutional reforms".

Key figures imprisoned by the Gayoom government include the local journalist Jennifer Latheef and Mohamed Nasheed, the chair of the leading opposition group, the Maldivian Democratic Party.

The situation on the islands has prompted several British MPs to express concerns in parliament. But after a meeting with Mr Gayoom in London last month, Mark Malloch-Brown, the minister for Africa, Asia and the UN, said the two had "had very constructive discussions ... about the democratic reform agenda".

Speaking to Guardian Unlimited on Wednesday from the densely-populated Maldivian capital Male, Mr Nasheed, who still chairs the MDP, disagreed with Lord Malloch Brown's comments.

"[President Gayoom] is not serious at all [about the reform process]. I wouldn't be surprised if he brings out the military on Saturday to obstruct voting," he said.

Opposition members are still being arrested at a rate of one or two a day, Mr Nasheed went on to say. But he added: "People are going to come out in large numbers and vote Gayoom out. The people of the Maldives will vote for a parliamentary system. They want to vote for a change.

"We believe that after the election, the government will have very little room to assert the reform process and hopefully ... we will have a multi-party general election by early next year."

But Ibrahim Shafiu, a chief government spokesman, said he had "100% confidence that the Maldivians will choose a presidential system" in the referendum.

He said he was anticipating a good turnout and believed Mr Gayoom's reform agenda was going well. "The dialogue is on, the debate is on and [society] is moving," he said.

But asked if he could guarantee that opposition voters and activists would not face intimidation by government forces during voting, Mr Shafiu said: "I am not sure. The opposition has a very strong hand on the street creating a lot of intimidation. I cannot guarantee that it will not happen, but I think [the voters] will be very controlled."

Mr Shafiu said all parties had been invited to participate in vote-counting and observation by the country's election commissioner. He said a team of Commonwealth experts from Britain would also oversee the referendum.

Whatever happens, the result is certain to have profound ramifications for the country. As Mr Gayoom himself said during his July trip to London: "These are exciting times indeed for the Maldives. We aim to establish a peaceful, prosperous and just society for all ... and we are equally convinced that our friends in the United Kingdom have an important role to play in helping us along the road."

Source: Guardian Online

No comments: