Coral politics

The Maldives have elected a new president – after three previous attempts failed

How many elections does it take to choose a president in the Maldives? Four, apparently, after a destabilising campaign of annulled ballots, cancelled votes and political grand-standing from all sides. On Saturday 16 the final election produced a result that has been accepted by the victors and the defeated and can hopefully bring some calm back to the tiny country after 18 months of political unrest. Abdulla Yameen is the new man in charge but his empowerment comes after a nervy period dating back to February 2012 when the Maldives’ first democratically-elected leader, Mohammed Nasheed, stepped down after street protests followed the sacking of a top judge.

The upheaval was not officially seen as a coup, but the resulting election that culminated in the vote last week was a catalogue of strange electoral management:

7 September: Nasheed, who was imprisoned during the one-party rule that ended in 2008, won this vote with 45%, but that result was scrapped by the Supreme Court over voter list irregularities.

9 November: A re-run of the first go. This time around, Mr Nasheed actually increased his share of the vote from 45% to 47% but it was not enough for an outright victory.

10 November: A run-off election called for this day was again cancelled by the Supreme Court, which is dominated by judges from the 1978-2008 one-party regime.

16 November: The run-off was set for this date and, although Mr Nasheed won the first-round, Abdulla Yameen secured 51.6% of the votes in the second-round ballot and thus landed the presidency.

Although Yameen is new to the hot-seat he comes from a dynasty that is infamously linked to the Maldivian presidency. His half-brother Maumoon Abdul Gayoom ruled the country for 30 years from 1978 in what has been criticised as a ‘dictatorial manner’ by rights groups. So is this a step backwards for the Asian archipelago? That is certainly the point of view that the defeated Nasheed takes, who fears sharia law is creeping into the Muslim nation and that the religious conservatism of the old guard could manifest itself again through the new leader. For his part, Yameen has pledged to get to work on trying to tackle the country’s high debt and lack of foreign currency reserves. Revised and reinvigorated economic policy would be welcome, but the new president would also like to see the death penalty implemented, a measure that is not such good news.

The mishandled lead-up to Saturday’s vote did not go unnoticed on the international stage. The Commonwealth threw the Maldives out of its disciplinary panel and the European Union hinted at a reaction if there was further unrest spilling out from another undecided or contested result. The other international side to the Maldives is its tourism sector, and nearly a million holidaymakers from across the world flew in last year.

Exactly how many honeymooning couples were aware or would have wanted to be aware of the political unrest is uncertain. What is undeniable is that their presence on the coral-fringed white-sand beaches and in the clear, green Indian Ocean waves is of the utmost importance to Malé. Tourism made up 38% of government revenue in 2012.

Abdulla got frosty with the EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton over her warnings, saying “We will decide our own affairs”. That may be true, but while Western powers might seem a nuisance with their cautioning and judgements, their nationals are more than happy to jet in for a spot of secluded snorkelling off one of the country’s beautiful atolls. Mr Nasheed has respected the result, saying “we have the opportunity to show citizens how an opposition party that is loyal to the state works”. Mr Abdulla must provide clear, focused respect on the path ahead, and lashing out at the foreign powers whose people come up with a vital portion of his government’s coffers is not the best way to begin.

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