Sunday, July 25, 2010

Politics spark trouble in paradise

Luxury holiday destination Maldives embraced Western-style multi-party democracy in 2008 amid high hopes for rapid reforms, but two years later the usually peaceful paradise is in deep trouble.

The country's first free presidential vote has led to political deadlock and a constitutional crisis, threatening instability at a time when rich foreign tourists are once again flocking to its stunning atolls and white beaches.

The Maldives was hit hard by the global economic downturn, leading to a public finance crisis for newly elected president Mohamed Nasheed, 43, who was a political prisoner under the former regime.

He took office in 2008 promising privatisation, an end to corruption and economic prosperity, but now finds himself locked in a power struggle with the parliament.

The economy contracted by four percent last year and forced him to seek a 92.5-million-dollar bailout from the IMF.

"He came to power raising expectations to unrealistic levels," a Western diplomat in Colombo said. "He finds himself a victim of his own rhetoric. He will have to fight hard to retain his hold on power."

Nasheed's cabinet resigned en masse on June 29 saying it could not carry out its work because the opposition-controlled parliament was blocking every initiative.

Since then, Nasheed has reappointed the ministers, but the parliament is refusing to ratify them. Meanwhile, police have arrested several opposition lawmakers, further antagonising Nasheed's adversaries.

"The bottom line is Nasheed should go," joint opposition spokesman Mohamed Shareef said in an interview with AFP in Colombo this week.

The seeds of today's impasse go back to the 2009 parliamentary election when the People's Party (DRP) led by the man Nasheed beat for the presidency, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, won a majority.

Although it gained control of the legislature, the DRP fell short of a two-thirds majority it would need to impeach the president. At the same time, Nasheed cannot dismiss the assembly until it completes its full five-year term.

The result has been total deadlock.

"There are glitches in the constitution that allow a simple majority in parliament to obstruct the core functions of the executive, such as raising taxes and providing subsidies," the president's spokesman Mohamed Zuhair said.

The squabbling has now hit the streets. Daily protest marches are reported from the highly congested capital Male in a throw-back to 2003, when violent pro-democracy demonstrations first erupted.

In a worrying development for the Maldives -- which depends economically on a steady influx of wealthy tourists -- both the US and Britain warned their nationals this week to be wary of demonstrations in the capital.

US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake travelled to Male on Thursday for a day of talks with the government, as well as opposition figures, as Washington attempts to resolve the deadlock.

The Maldives has a highly strategic airport in the southern island of Gan, which is just 450 miles (735 kilometres) north of the US military base of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

Gan was a staging post for Britain during World War II. Male has always resisted foreign pressure, especially during the height of the Cold War, to allow any military presence at Gan, which is now an international airport.

The Maldives was a British protectorate till 1965. An Islamic sultan ruled the country till 1968, when the country adopted a one-party presidential system. Gayoom became president 10 years later.

Now 72, Gayoom was Asia's longest serving leader when he stepped down in 2008 to make way for Nasheed. He is accused of rights violations but is also credited with turning the Maldives into an upmarket tourist paradise.

Anti-Gayoom riots in 2003 accelerated the pro-democracy movement that swept Nasheed, a former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, to power in 2008.

Nasheed has since raised his profile abroad with a series of stunts aimed at attracting attention to global warming and its impact on his low-lying archipelago.

In October, Nasheed and his ministers donned scuba gear to hold an underwater cabinet meeting to highlight the threat posed by rising sea levels.


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