Mention the Maldives and what springs to most people’s minds is a vision of tropical paradise — palm-fringed beaches, luxury hotels full of smiling staff, and some of the best scuba diving in the world.
What is less well known is that this popular honeymoon destination is ruled by one of the most repressive regimes in Asia and is headed by the continent’s longest-serving leader — Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.
But now, after 29 years in power, President Gayoom is finally allowing a referendum to decide whether to maintain his autocratic system of government or switch to Westminster-style parliamentary democracy.
The unprecedented poll, which will be held tomorrow, is designed to show Western donors that the Indian Ocean island state of 370,000 people — mostly Sunni Muslims — is becoming more democratic before its first multi-party elections in 2008.
It is also regarded as a proxy vote on Mr Gayoom’s popularity in the former British protectorate, which is made up of 1,192 tiny coral islands scattered over 550 miles across the Equator.
Since taking power in 1978, critics say, he has stifled political dissent, squandered millions of pounds of public money, and enforced a system of “apartheid” tourism that bans most Maldivians from its island resorts.
While foreign tourists enjoy five-star luxury, more than a third of Maldivians live in the cramped concrete blocks and narrow, congested lanes of the capital city, Male.
Mr Gayoom — a 69-year-old former academic who counted Saddam Hussein as a friend — lives in a palace in the capital that is said to be guarded by Gurkha mercenaries because he does not trust his own people.
In 2004 he started a democratic reform programme in response to antigovernment riots and allegations of the torture of political prisoners. Political parties were allowed for the first time the following year.
Now Mr Gayoom wants to establish what he describes as a US-style executive presidential system of government and to impose a limit of two five-year terms on the presidency.
Although already on his sixth term, he plans to stand in next year’s election and then retire in 2010, or whenever his reform programme is complete.
“What many countries had achieved over the course of decades or even centuries is being introduced in the Maldives in only a handful of years,” he said on a visit to Britain last month. “Despite this ambitious time-table, much progress has already been made. In just three years, the reform agenda has transformed the political landscape of the Maldives.”
Not fast enough, though, for his opponents — which include some within his own government and even his family. In the first week of this month, the Justice Minister and Attorney-General resigned from the Cabinet, saying that they were frustrated with delays in democratic reforms. Dr Ahmed Shaheed, the reform-minded Foreign Minister, was rumoured widely to have handed in his resignation yesterday. Mr Gayoom’s younger half-brother, a hardliner within the Government, also resigned his Cabinet portfolio this year.
The main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) says that the only path to clean, accountable government is to introduce a multi-party political system with a prime minister who is answerable to parliament. It accuses the Government of illegally detaining, sodomising and torturing dozens of its members, including its leader, Mohamed Nasheed. Mr Nasheed, known locally as Anni, has spent six of the past 16 years in Maldivian prisons. He also spent several years in exile in Britain organising his party, which was illegal until 2005.
“More democracy will bring more accountability and this will help to stamp out the corruption in the country,” Mohamed Shihab, an MDP parliamentary leader, said in India. “The people of the Maldives must see change. It is up to all of us here to ensure that democracy is brought to the Maldives in a peaceful manner.”
Under the current system, President Gayoom appoints all Cabinet ministers and they answer directly to him. There is a partially elected body, known as the Citizens’ Majlis, which can comment on, but not change, presidential legislation.
The referendum is being watched closely in Britain, which ruled the Maldives from 1887 to 1965 and is now one of the country’s biggest foreign donors. “It is important that the elections due in 2008 are seen to be free, fair and inclusive and that they enjoy the support of all the people of the Maldives,” Lord Malloch-Brown, the Foreign Office Minister, said during Mr Gayoom’s visit in July.
Flower of the Indies
— Archaeological finds suggest that the Maldives, described by Marco Polo as the “flower of the Indies”, have been inhabited since 1500BC
— Arab visitors from AD749 took trade and Islam. It was a sultanate through the 17th century and became a British protectorate in 1887. It gained independence in 1965 and became a republic in 1968
— Only 200 of 1,190 islands are inhabited; 80 more have tourist resorts. The land surface area of the archipelago is 300sq km (116 sq miles), inhabited by 369,000 people
— Gross Domestic Product in 2006 was £1,971 per capita, 28 per cent of which was derived from tourism, the largest industry, followed by fishing
— Divehi, the Maldivian language, contributed the word “atoll” (a ring-shaped coral reef) to English
— The Maldives’ earliest history is preserved in the Loamaafaanu chronicles dating from AD1194, written on narrow strips of copper in the now extinct Eveylaa script
— Unemployment is negligible, though 21 per cent of the population live below the poverty lineSource: Times Online