Maldives election another chance at unity

MALE, Maldives (AP) — The Maldives — more than 1,100 islands scattered across the Indian Ocean — are sharply divided along political lines. The first democratically elected president insists his former deputy helped force him out in a coup d’etat. And the brother of the longtime dictator of the country, where widespread unemployment exists alongside some of the world’s most expensive beach resorts, now wants to be president himself.

Few hope that Saturday’s presidential elections will soothe the divisions that have inflamed the archipelago since last year, when former President Mohamed Nasheed resigned amid a standoff with security forces and widespread protests.

“Even families are divided and some are not on talking terms,” said Mohamed Visham, editor of local English daily Haveeru. He said the new leader will have to shift attention away from the political divide and toward issues like economic development and infrastructure.

The Maldives had its first democratic presidential elections just five years ago, after 30 years of dictatorship under Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Most of its public institutions, from the police to the public service commission and the courts, are widely seen as political partisan, and it is believed that most government workers continue to support Gayoom.

“This could be the key election for democracy and institution-building-up,” said Aiman Rasheed, a spokesman for Transparency Maldives, an independent political monitor. “There are tensions between the security forces and the opposition, and the judiciary is being called into question.”

Some in the Maldives question whether democracy has helped at all.

“We had been a united country working together,” before 2008, said 18-year-old Mohamed Shahudan. “It’s no longer so.”

Known to the outside world for its luxurious resorts and beautiful beaches, the country made political headlines last year when Nasheed resigned in the face of public protests, and after losing support from the military and police.

The day after his resignation, Nasheed claimed he was forced to step down at gunpoint as part of a coup backed by Gayoom. In protests that followed, some of Nasheed’s supporters were injured in a police crackdown.

Though a domestic commission of inquiry has dismissed Nasheed’s claim, the country has been in political turmoil ever since. Nasheed has repeatedly dismissed as illegal the government of his former vice president — now President Mohamed Waheed Hassan.

While there is little reliable polling in the Maldives, Nasheed and Yaamin Abdul Qayyoom, Gayoom’s brother, are thought to be the two leading candidates.

Hassan is also running, but his party is smaller. He was elected vice president in the first democratic election in an alliance with Nasheed. A fourth candidate, Qasim Ibrahim, is a wealthy businessman.

The next president must form a credible government, build up public confidence in government institutions and deal with pressing issues including high unemployment, increasing drug addiction among young people and improving transportation among the far-off islands.

Nasheed and Gayoom hope to win in the first round by securing 51 percent of the vote. If no candidate wins 51 percent, the top two will face one another in second round of voting on Sept. 28.

Some 240,000 people are eligible to vote this year.

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