After 30 years as the undisputed President of the Maldives, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Asia's longest-serving ruler was ousted yesterday by a former political prisoner, Mohamed "Anni" Nasheed, in the country's first democratic elections.
Mohamed “Anni” Nasheed, a former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, won 54 per cent of the vote to 46 per cent for President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, according to the Election Commission.
Hundreds of Mr Nasheed's supporters danced and cheered and honked car horns in the streets of the congested capital, Malé, to celebrate the dawn of a new era in the Indian Ocean archipelago.
“We've been waiting so long for this,” said Aishath Abbas, 28, a student. “It feels like a new world.”
Mr Nasheed, 41, held talks with Mr Gayoom, 71, and then addressed the tiny nation of 370,000 people, who are mostly Sunni Muslims and are spread across nearly 1,200 islands.
“I don't think we should go for a witch hunt,” Mr Nasheed said in a joint press conference with his former rival and one-time jailer, whom he has accused of having him tortured repeatedly in custody. “That will not happen because it will not help democracy.”
He reassured voters and the international community that he planned to push forward with democratic reforms, including greater media freedom, before holding parliamentary elections, which are due by February. He also promised to tackle the issues of rising sea levels, a heroin crisis and the potential impact of the global financial meltdown.
The election was regarded largely as a referendum on Mr Gayoom, who had won six polls since 1978 as the only candidate on the ballot, before pro-democracy protests forced him to lift a ban on political parties in 2006.
Mr Gayoom's supporters say he has transformed the Maldives into South Asia's richest country per capita — based on luxury resorts that can charge international tourists as much as $15,000 (£8,700) for a room — and engineered a peaceful transition to democratic rule.
Mr. Gayoom's opponents brand him a latter-day sultan who has pocketed tens of millions of pounds in tourist revenue and tsunami aid, and who rivalled Robert Mugabe, the President of Zimbabwe, in his determination to cling to power.
Yesterday, however, the outgoing President appeared to be gracious in defeat as he heralded “the introduction of a new age of democracy”. “ Mr. Gayoom said in a speech broadcast live:
Mr Nasheed is expected to be sworn in on November 11, 30 years to the day after Mr Gayoom took office in 1978.
I don't like being beaten in sports. I don't like being beaten in politics. But it is a fact of life that sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.
In that spirit, I accept this verdict of the people. I am declaring my full support to him. In this change we are approaching, I assure you we will make this a peaceful process.
My prayer is that God gives prosperity to the Maldives and shows us peaceful and affluent days.”
Educated in Sri Lanka and Britain, Mr Nasheed spent six years in jail for opposing Mr Gayoom's rule before being granted political asylum in Britain in 2004.
He returned to the islands to found the Maldivian Democratic Party after Mr Gayoom allowed political parties to be formed for the first time.
The Maldives (read here for more)
The Maldives (or Maldive Islands), officially the Republic of Maldives, is an island nation consisting of a group of atolls stretching south of India's Lakshadweep islands between the Minicoy and the Chargos archipelagoes, and about seven hundred kilometres (435 mi) south-west of Sri Lanka in the Laccadive Sea of Indian Ocean.
The twenty-six atolls of Maldives encompass a territory featuring 1,192 islets, two hundred and fifty islands of which are inhabited.
The inhabitants were Buddhist, probably since Ashoka's period, in the 3rd century BC and possibly Hindu before that.
Islam was introduced in 1153. The Maldives then came under the influence of the Portuguese (1558) and the Dutch (1654) seaborne empires. In 1887 it became a British protectorate. In 1965, the Maldives obtained independence from Britain (originally under the name "Maldive Islands"), and in 1968 the Sultanate was replaced by a Republic.
The Maldives is the smallest Asian country in terms of both population and area.
It is the smallest predominantly Muslim nation in the world. It is also the country with the lowest highest point in the world.
Editorial, The Guardian UK
In praise of... Mohamed 'Anni' Nasheed
It sounds too good to be true.
A human rights campaigner, who bears the injuries of the torture he received in jail, topples Asia's longest-serving despot in a democratic election.
But it has just happened in the tropical Indian Ocean archipelago of the Maldives.
The election of Mohamed "Anni" Nasheed, a former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, had people dancing in the streets of the island's capital, Malé, yesterday. The president-elect said he would not pursue criminal charges against Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the strongman he defeated, but would instead arrange a pension and security for him.
This is a good start, but the charismatic former opposition leader will soon face other tests. The five opposition parties that Nasheed united includes everyone from democrats to conservative Islamic parties, and unity will be difficult to maintain as elections approach for a new parliament in March.
Nasheed campaigned for a stronger parliament with the ability to check presidential powers and block appointments to the cabinet.
As president, it will be up to him to make this system work. Autocracy brought wealth to the atolls but also glaring inequalities.
Nearly a third of children are malnourished and the archipelago has a big drug problem. It also faces rising sea levels. The IMF is urging a cut in public spending and Nasheed inherits an economy which earns 28% of its income from tourism, a sure casualty of the global downturn.
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