Maldives’ interrupted former president again fighting for political foothold

The saga of the rise and fall of Mohamed Nasheed reads like a political thriller

Mohamed Nasheed, the democracy campaigner, journalist and environmental activist who in 2008 became the first democratically elected president of the Maldives. Photograph: Ishara S Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images

Mohamed Nasheed, the democracy campaigner, journalist and environmental activist who in 2008 became the first democratically elected president of the Maldives. Photograph: Ishara S Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images

Mon, Aug 18, 2014, 01:00

Down a narrow alley and up the stairs of an unglamorous building in the bustling island city of Malé, a slight-framed, bespectacled man sits alone at a polished boardroom table. His minute stature, reflected on the vast wooden surface under drab lighting, is accentuated. It is a scene redolent both of the new political reality in which he is swamped and his preparedness, shirtsleeves rolled, to continue pushing a controversial agenda regardless of who comes or does not come to the table.

Mohamed Nasheed, the democracy campaigner, journalist and environmental activist who in 2008 became the first democratically elected president of the Maldives – and the darling of the climate change protest movement – is once again fighting for a political foothold.

“It’s not easy to overcome a dictatorship,” he says, his high-pitched voice rising often to a squeal, his body twitching with energy. “You can change the ruler, you can change the dictator, but it’s difficult to uproot it unless you have some time in between, and unless you have a fair amount of support from others also: from the international community, from international agencies, from NGOs, from everyone. We were not able to muster that kind of international support to nurture democracy in the Maldives.”

The saga of the rise and fall of Nasheed (47), the most popular politician in this south Asian resort archipelago of 1,192 tiny, precariously low-lying coral islands necklaced in the Indian Ocean, reads like a political thriller.

Parliamentary polls in March saw his popular Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) trounced by the old-guard Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) led by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, whose 30-year dictatorship was overthrown when the modernising Nasheed came to power. A reversal of democracy is under way and dictatorship once again looms, says Nasheed, who lists the rise of the surrounding waters and of Islamic extremism as the biggest threats to this Muslim nation of 26 atolls, a former British protectorate that gained independence in 1965.

“You can’t have democracy without a country.” Since the election, the government has been excoriated internationally for reintroducing the death penalty; under the law children as young as seven could potentially be sentenced. The PPM is moving towards sharia law.

Election observers of the March poll highlighted vote-buying as a major flaw. “There are many issues of voter fraud,” says Nasheed, whose calls for a boycott were voted down by his fellow MDP members shortly before polling day. “A number of ballot papers were marked by the people who voted – marked to indicate to paymasters or intimidators on how they voted.”

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