Maldives faces democracy test after ‘coup’ violence

MALE, Maldives - The Indian Ocean archipelago of the Maldives goes to the polls this weekend for a presidential election that will test its young democracy 18 months after a violent change in leadership.

Political unrest in February 2012 briefly threatened the country's vital tourism sector, which draws a million well-heeled visitors a year, following the ousting of former president Mohamed Nasheed.

Nasheed, a scuba-diving former democracy activist, won the Maldives' first free vote in 2008, but resigned last year after a mutiny by police officers.

The 46-year-old denounced it as a coup, saying he was forced to step down at gunpoint, and accused then vice-president Mohamed Waheed of conspiring with former dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom to replace him.

Waheed's ascent to the presidency sparked months of protests and violent clashes, meaning observers - particularly regional power India - are anxious for a clear and uncontested result on Saturday.

"They (Maldivians) saw how the government was changed and I don't think the majority of people were happy about it," Nasheed told AFP while campaigning on Wednesday in the capital Male.

"What they are trying to do is to bring a legitimate government back." Looking relaxed as he posed for photos with supporters, held babies and stroked a kitten, Nasheed said he was confident of winning an outright majority in the first round.

But he admits the country's history of coups means there is "some apprehension and confidence issues about the security forces". Thoriq Hamed, from Transparency Maldives, an election monitoring group, said campaigning by Nasheed, Waheed and the two other candidates had so far taken place "smoothly and peacefully".

Waheed, a Stanford-educated former UN diplomat who lacks his own political base, is widely forecast to come last in Saturday's election. He declined to be interviewed by AFP for this article.

The other candidates are Gasim Ibrahim, a resort tycoon and one of the country's richest men, and Abdulla Yameen, the wealthy half-brother of former autocrat Gayoom.

That the election is taking place on schedule is seen as an achievement by foreign diplomats, who have pressured the administration to ensure a court case against Nasheed did not prevent him from campaigning.

Nasheed says the abuse of power charges against him are politically motivated.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called for a "credible and peaceful" vote - a hope shared by Maldivians, who know the country's relative prosperity relies on tourists. Sim Ibrahim Mohamed, the long-time former head of the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry, says that the unrest last year caused alarm as mobs torched police stations and government buildings.

The role of Islamist politicians in the leadership change, and their reward with cabinet jobs under Waheed, also highlighted the Maldives' turn towards more fundamentalist Islam, undermining its image as a laid-back paradise destination.

"It's a serious worry for the tourism industry. We don't want to be seen as a dangerous place or a place where there is a lot of intolerance," Mohamed told AFP.

Most holidaymakers at the time of the unrest were blissfully unaware as they enjoyed crystal-clear waters in front of luxury beach cabins costing up to $3,500 (S$4400) a night.

The Islamic republic, which bans pork and alcohol for Maldivians and sometimes flogs women for pre-marital sex, keeps the Western and Chinese tourists who make up most of its visitors largely out of sight on uninhabited islands.

The outcome and conduct of the election also has regional repercussions, with the sea-faring nation becoming a new area of competition between India and China.

Its more than 1,000 islands sit aside the world's most important east-west shipping channel and its strategic location was appreciated by former colonial master Britain, which ran a military base there until 1976.

The Waheed administration alienated New Delhi last December by aligning with known India antagonists and terminating Indian group GMR's contract to run the international airport.

A new Chinese embassy which opened in 2011 has also raised eyebrows. If no candidate secures a majority on Saturday, a run-off poll is scheduled for September 28.