Former political prisoner Nasheed elected president in Maldives

 

A FORMER political prisoner, repeatedly jailed by Maldivian president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom yesterday defeated the 30-year incumbent in a historic run-off election in the Indian Ocean tourist haven and luxury hideaway.

Opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed's victory in the first multi-party democratic polls in the archipelago with a population of around 300,000 Muslims ends the reign of Asia's longest-serving leader, whose rule was likened to that of a sultan.

President Gayoom won the first round earlier this month but failed to secure the 50 per cent needed for outright victory over Nasheed.

Citing provisional figures, election commissioner Mohamed Ibrahim said yesterday in the capital Male that Nasheed had won 54.2 per cent of the vote against 45.8 registered by Gayoom in the polls that were the culmination of extended pro-democracy protests and international pressure to introduce political reforms.

This was the first time that Gayoom faced a rival at the hustings after he was first elected in 1979. In each of the six subsequent votes he stood alone for referendums and unquestioningly claimed re-election each time by over 90 per cent of the vote.

This time round, however, 86 per cent of Maldives' over 209,000 registered voters cast their ballots.

Meanwhile, a victorious Nasheed, charged 27 times and jailed or banished to remote atolls for a total of six years, said the people of the Maldives were "embracing the future".

"Beloved citizens of the Maldives, I accept the results of the run-off election and respectfully congratulate Mohamed Nasheed and his party," Mr Gayoom told the state-run radio Voice of Maldives. Mr Gayoom is credited with transforming the Maldives from a fishing-based economy to an up-market tourist destination with south Asia's highest per-capita income.

But Mr Nasheed maintained that only a charmed circle around Mr Gayoom benefited amid corruption, a charge the outgoing president denies.

As president, Mr Nasheed inherits an economy in which tourism comprises 28 per cent of the gross domestic product, but one which is under pressure from the International Monetary Fund to cut back on financial profligacy. Tourism earnings, too, are expected to substantially drop in the ongoing global financial crisis.

The 1,192 mostly uninhabited coral atolls 800km off India's west coast that constitute the Maldives also face the additional problems of child malnutrition, growing Islamic extremism and a heroin addiction problem. But the most alarming of all tribulations afflicting the Maldives is the rising ocean level which could see most of its land mass disappear under water by 2100.