October 8, 2008

‘Mandela of Maldives’ Confident of Victory

By Andrew Buncombe

Island state has chance to oust 71-year-old dictator in first free vote for 20 years

A MAN nicknamed the "Mandela of the Maldives", Mohammed Anni Nasheed, concluded an exhausting and bitterly-fought presidential election campaign last night, ahead of a vote that will decide the future of the longest serving political leader in Asia.

To the outside world, the Maldives appear to epitomise the very essence of a tropical paradise, gifted with white sand beaches and azure seas across its more than 1,000 islands. But the Indian Ocean nation has been ruled with an iron grip since 1978 by President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who some consider little more than a dictator. Today's presidential contest is the first time he has allowed anyone to challenge him for the country's senior position.

Five candidates are challenging Mr Gayoom for the presidency. Though there is a lack of reliable polls, the candidate seen to have the best chance of beating the 71-year-old is Mr Nasheed, a former political prisoner who has urged Maldivians to usher in a new era.

Speaking last night as he made a final campaign tour through the streets of the capital Male, noisy with music and shouting, Mr Nasheed said: "We are in the middle of the last few hours of the campaign. We are very confident that we can win it for the first time."

Mr Nasheed's Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) claims that behind the faade of a tourist paradise, the country is grappling with crime, unemployment, drug abuse, soaring inflation and religious fundamentalism. Sabra Nordeen, a party spokeswoman, said the country also lacked sufficient affordable housing and healthcare. "We say we want to make the Maldives a paradise for the people who live here, not just for those who come to visit," she said.

Mr Gayoom, who previously also held the positions of finance and defence ministers, has been criticised by groups such as Amnesty International for restricting the press and limiting political opposition. Yet the election campaign has seen the president draw large crowds in many of the Maldives' outlying atolls where more than half of the 208,000 strong electorate live. It is there that his conservative, traditional Muslim manifesto is more likely to win supporters. His aides believe he will win more than the 50 per cent of the vote required to avoid a run-off and are promising "five more dynamic years".

Claiming he has a record of bringing jobs to the nation's 350,000 people, Mr Gayoom recently told a rally that he was the only one capable of overseeing the Muslim nation's transformation to democracy. "I'm the only person who can bring a united government," he said.

But his critics say he was forced to begin a series of reforms following civil unrest when islanders took to the streets in 2004 and 2005. He escaped an assassination attempt at the beginning of this year when an islander tried to stab him with a kitchen knife. Last year, Mr Gayoom's attorney general, Hassan Saeed, stood down from the government, complaining that the president was standing in the way of moving towards proper democracy. Mr Saeed, an internationally respected reformer, is another of the challengers standing.

Mr Nasheed, who has been imprisoned a number of times for articles he wrote while working as a journalist, is reliant on drawing support from voters in Male, where overcrowding, drugs and inflation have become key concerns. He has accused Mr Gayoom of "smear tactics" and spreading false rumours that he wishes to convert people to Christianity.

Originally published by By Andrew Buncombe ASIA CORRESPONDENT.

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