A sixth term for Gayoom

Print edition : November 21, 2003

President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. - AFP

Maldivians vote President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom to power for a sixth term even as there are signs that sections of the people want a change from the existing political and cultural rigidities.

ON October 17, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, President of the Maldives, was re-elected to a sixth five-year term in power in a public referendum. The election process started on September 25 when the 50-member People's Majlis (Parliament) voted unanimously to nominate Gayoom for a new term. The voting was through secret ballot, in which each member cast his/her vote by writing the name of the candidate of choice on the ballot paper. After the vote, Speaker Abdulla Hameed called on the President and congratulated him.

The President, according to the Constitution, has to be a Sunni Muslim citizen of the Maldives and is elected through a multi-step procedure. The Commissioner of Elections determines who are qualified to run for the presidency, notifies the Speaker of the Majlis and makes a public announcement. Within three days, the Speaker convenes the Majlis, announces the names and calls for a meeting in which the members, through secret ballot, select the candidate to be nominated for the referendum.

The state-run Maldives News Bulletin quoted the President as thanking the Majlis for the outcome, which was "a clear evidence that the people firmly supported his policies". In a letter to the Majlis, Gayoom said he regarded the support for his candidature as "a great honour" and one that "reaffirmed the full support and backing of the members for the policies that had been espoused over the past 25 years".

On October 17, an overwhelming 1,02,909 votes (90.28 per cent) were cast in favour of Gayoom and 11,083 against in the referendum, confirming the election by the Majlis. Of the 50 members in the Majlis, eight are appointed by the President, two are elected from Male and two each from each atoll of the Maldives.

During his 25 years in power, the atoll nation, comprising 1,192 coral islands in the Indian Ocean, became the premier tourist destination of the region. With its near-flat islands, none of which is more than six feet above sea level, the sunny side of the Maldives has remained a major tourist attraction. The credit for this transformation goes to Gayoom.

The votes cast by Majlis members to elect the presidential candidate being counted, in Male on September 25.-AFP

ACCORDING to the Maldives' unitary Constitution, the President is the head of state, the head of government, the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and the chief of the police. Since his ascent to power in 1978, with promises of change from a feudal past, Gayoom has remained South Asia's longest-serving ruler. Away from the global spotlight, he has managed to propel his country towards material prosperity. The economic indicators of the nation are among the brightest, with a per capita income of more than $2,000 - up from around $200 when Gayoom came to power.

When he was first nominated by the Majlis to run for President, he inherited a system that was cracking under feudalism. The nation was simmering with discontent over the methods of his predecessor, Ibrahim Nasir, who went into retirement. In 1978, the Majlis nominated Gayoom, who was the Transport Minister, as the presidential candidate. Since then, he has been re-elected President at every referendum.

On November 11, exactly 25 years after he first assumed office, Gayoom will begin his sixth term in office. However, there were signs of discontent in the run-up to the re-election. Gayoom's rule came under the international spotlight for all the wrong reasons when two prisoners died in a prison shootout at Maafushi in the second week of September. On September 20, mobs set fire to police vehicles, the Election Commissioner's building and a police station. Amnesty International condemned the prison violence. Curfew was imposed, the police chief removed and an inquiry commission constituted. The unrest was quelled, but the core of discontent remains. Male's prison conditions have been a matter of concern among human rights activists.

Gayoom has much to deliver, particularly in the political sphere, according to his opponents, who feel that there is a need for greater freedom. Some people have been calling for a separation of powers saying that the powerful presidency makes it difficult for the legislature or the judiciary to function independently. There have been calls also for introducing checks and balances to the President's powers.

The Electoral Commission building in Male, damaged after a night of rioting.-AFP

While Gayoom sets out a national development plan focussing on the future, political constraints remain. There is also concern among those who want more freedom that the international community has not paid much attention to the situation in the country. Human rights apart, there is also concern that by unfairly invoking religion to perpetrate the present situation, the Maldives could slide towards religious extremism.

The key to a real transformation, according to political circles, is to bring in a systemic overhaul. With social contradictions emerging, the clamour for change is also growing. With an enviable literacy rate of about 98.94 per cent, expectations of greater political, social and religious freedoms have become evident. Political dissent, fearing repression, is muted.

The Maafushi prison violence and the public outrage that followed is seen by those who want a change from the existing rigidities as a sign of discontent that cannot be quenched with palliatives. The government, however, does not see it as a reflection of political unrest. "It does not (show) any kind of dissent against the government. It was a protest against the people there. I think the government has taken very stiff measures to remove those people who are responsible," the Maldivian Foreign Minister Fathullah Jameel told a Western news agency.

As Gayoom starts his latest term as President, the main challenge he faces is the test of his own conviction that he would deliver upon the popular expectations, raised 25 years ago, of a spell of political and cultural freedom.

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