Election dispute reveals the darker side of the Maldives

Those trying to disrupt democracy in the island nation are running out of options in their effort to prevent the presidential elections from taking place.

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The palm trees rustle lightly in the afternoon breeze as tourists laze around on sun-drenched beaches. Could anywhere be more idyllic than the Maldives in the winter?

Few of those tourists are likely to be aware of the political storm that’s brewing on the islands as a cabal of politicians and businessmen grow increasingly desperate in their bid to prevent presidential elections.

Police stormed into the offices of the Maldives’ Election Commission on the morning of October 26, saying the voter list had not been approved by all of the presidential candidates and the election would have to be cancelled.

The candidates didn't want to sign off on the voter list because they knew they would almost certainly lose to Mohamed Nasheed, a former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience who was ousted from the presidency by a violent mob last year.

In fact, Mr Nasheed has already won the election once: a first round was held in early September in which he took 45 per cent of the vote, way ahead of his closest challenger with 25 per cent. But the result was annulled on seemingly spurious grounds, as Mr Nasheed’s opponents suddenly decided they were not happy with the voter lists.

This was in spite of the fact that domestic and international observers had given the poll a clean bill of health.

It’s the sort of attempt to subvert democracy that has long been associated with kleptocratic rulers in sub-Saharan Africa, but because the Maldives government pays lip service to international standards of good governance, it feels the need to create evermore convoluted stories to justify its actions.

Mr Nasheed is opposed by a collection of politicians and business owners who are determined to keep him from returning to power. In case there was any doubt about their motivations, one of his opponents openly stated after the vote in September that Mr Nasheed would not be permitted to assume the presidency regardless of the result. “We will not hand over this country to an evil, wicked, mad man. We … will not hand over even if he gets elected,” said Dr Mohamed Jameel, a former home minister.

Villa Group, one of the largest resort companies in the Maldives, is owned by Gasim Ibrahim, the presidential candidate who demanded the annulment of the first vote in September. Sun Travel’s owner Ahmed Shiyam, meanwhile, has formed a coalition with Mr Nasheed’s main rival who has supported the cancellation of elections. Both Villa Group and Sun Travel are accused of firing employees who show any support for Mr Nasheed.

These factions and business groups revolve around the former leader, Maumoon Gayoom, whose iron grip on the country for three decades meant he controlled all of the country’s institutions, including the police force and the judiciary. He was finally unseated by Mr Nasheed in the country’s first democratic election in 2008, but continues to hold sway throughout the Maldives’ 1,300 idyllic atolls.

Last year, Mr Gayoom’s supporters orchestrated violent demonstrations against Mr Nasheed’s government, pulling in members of the police and army. They used radical Islamist preachers to whip the mob into a frenzy and claimed that Mr Nasheed was handing the country over to Christians by allowing its airport to be used by the Israeli military to “bomb Arab countries”.

Fearing for the life of his family, Mr Nasheed was forced to resign. On the day he left office, an enraged mob broke into the national museum and destroyed priceless and ancient Buddhist artefacts.

After Mr Nasheed was unseated, his opponents attempted to have him thrown in jail. It was only behind-the-scenes pressure from the Commonwealth and the UN that ensured he was kept out of prison and allowed to contest the election. But clearly a plan had been set in motion to ensure Mr Nasheed would never be allowed back into the presidential palace.

The government has stated that a fresh vote will be held on November 9, but many worry that another trick will be sprung. If all else fails, the police may simply be called in to arrest leading opposition figures and impose martial law.

Some opposition MPs have already been targeted, and a criminal investigation launched against an opposition-aligned TV station, which also suffered an arson attack last month.

One may wonder why anyone should care about politics on a tiny group of islands in the Indian Ocean with a population of just 300,000, but a million tourists a year treat the Maldives as their holiday playground.

Until Mr Nasheed came along, islanders were not even permitted to open their own guesthouses and benefit from the tourist boom. Mr Nasheed also introduced a tax that showed the resort owners had been underreporting their earnings to the tune of around $2 billion per year. No wonder he was not very popular with the powers that be.

Some tourist resorts have criticised the current mess and called for free and fair elections to take place. Many workers in the tourism industry are themselves calling for strikes to demand that elections are held.

A targeted boycott focused on those responsible for subverting democracy may be a powerful way for the international community to exert pressure.

At the very least, visitors ought to be aware of the dark undercurrents their tourist dollars are currently helping to fund.

Eric Randolph is a freelance journalist and security analyst covering Asia

On Twitter: @EricWRandolph