x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Dark clouds gather over the Maldives after election delay

The so-called "island paradise" needs more attention than ever from governments across the world.

It’s customary to begin articles about the Maldives with some phrases like “It may look like an island paradise, but …” After two years in which the country has experienced a violent coup and attempts to throw the first democratically elected president in jail, maybe it is time we dropped any notion of the Maldives as a utopia.

In recent days, the country’s elite have once again displayed their cynical disregard for democracy, with the Supreme Court indefinitely postponing the second round of the presidential election.

The official reason for that postponement is that the court is investigating claims of election irregularities in the first round made by one of the losing candidates, even though the vote was given a clean bill of health by international observers.

One doesn’t have to dig too deep to find signs that the real reason for the delay is that powerful business and political interests want to keep Mohamed Nasheed from assuming the presidency.

He is the man who defeated Asia’s longest-ruling dictator in the country’s first free elections in 2008 and served as president for four years until he was forced to resign in 2012, when a violent mob surrounded his home and threatened to lynch him and his family.

Mr Nasheed spent years in jail under the former dictatorship of Maumoon Gayoom during which he was named a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International. He gained international renown for his advocacy work on climate change – the low-lying islands of the Maldives are perilously close to submergence – including the world’s first-ever underwater cabinet meeting in 2009.

After Mr Nasheed was ousted last year, his enemies tried to have him thrown in jail. It was only pressure from the international community that ensured he was allowed to run in the first round of the election this month.

He took a resounding 45.5 per cent of the vote, well ahead of the second-place candidate, Abdulla Yameen, who happens to be the half-brother of the old dictator. But now Mr Nasheed’s supporters are being put in jail and there are threats to throw members of his Maldivian Democratic Party out of parliament and allow the Supreme Court to appoint its own choice for president.

Under the 30-year dictatorship, every judge was personally appointed by Mr Gayoom. Only 40 per cent of them had any formal legal training. One of the great failures of Mr Nasheed during his short tenure as president was his inability to reform the judiciary when he had the chance.

The international community – particularly India and the UK – have condemned the postponement of the election, but little is likely to change without some kind of economic pressure being exerted. Almost a million tourists travel to the Maldives every year. From these idyllic islands, visitors get few glimpses of the elements that affect ordinary Maldivians – corruption, human rights abuse and rampant unemployment.

For years, ordinary citizens were banned from opening their own guesthouses that would have allowed them to benefit from the tourism boom.

Mr Nasheed changed that, and was despised by the wealthy resort owners as a result. They also hated his new tourism tax that revealed they had been massively underreporting their earnings for years.

It was thought that tourism brought in about $700m (Dh2.57bn) a year, until the first tax receipts in 2011 showed the industry to be worth close to $3bn, with the difference apparently disappearing into offshore accounts.

Unsure how to tackle Mr Nasheed’s popularity, the regime turned to radical Islamist preachers to whip up anger against him.

For centuries, the Maldives has lived under a moderate form of Islam. That began to change when radicals began making fanciful claims against Mr Nasheed – for instance, that he was planning to allow the Israeli military to use the Maldives airport as a base from which to bomb Arab countries.

The increased power given to clerics has had some dire social consequences.

On the day the coup took place last year, an Islamist mob destroyed a priceless collection of ancient Buddhist artefacts in the national museum.

In January, a 16-year-old girl who had been repeatedly raped by family members was convicted of fornication and sentenced to 100 lashes. It was only after a global petition gathered more than two million signatures that her sentence was annulled.

Mr Nasheed’s opponents, meanwhile, spread rumours that he was a deranged drug-smoking maniac. One openly said that Mr Nasheed would not be allowed to assume the presidency even if he won the election, describing him as “evil, wicked, radical and especially a mad man”. This gives an idea of how much faith they put in the democratic process.

Now, his opponents have welcomed the decision to postpone the vote, even though the Election Commission has pointed out that this is in violation of the constitution.

Mr Nasheed’s party has already taken to the street in protest, and the country is on the verge of a civil war.

With much bigger headaches around the world, international governments are unlikely to consider the Maldives a priority, but the millions of tourists that take advantage of the stunning beauty of those islands might want to think about whose rights are being trampled in the process.

Eric Randolph is a freelance journalist and security analyst covering Asia

On Twitter: @EricWRandolph