It seems almost too good to be true. The ageing dictator of the Maldive islands has given way to someone he has in the past jailed as a dangerous rebel and political prisoner, paving the way for democratic rule – and without any hint of dynastic succession.
That is something that other much bigger south Asian countries have failed to achieve peacefully -not Pakistan or Bangladesh, where dynasties ring the changes with military rule – nor, in a different way, Nepal where the King had to be thrown out of his palace. The monarchy of Bhutan – where a new King will be crowned next week – is the only exception with its moves to democracy, but they were volunteered without any political pressure.
Elsewhere on the subcontinent dynasty rules, notably in India with a welter of political families emerging behind the dominant Gandhis. Dynasty has even spread to the rebel Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka whose leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, is said by security analysts to be trying to induct his 22-year old son, Charles Anthony Seelan, as his successor – currently he runs the Tigers’ tiny air force.
So the Maldives is striking out on its own, much to the surprise of even close observers. Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, 71, who has been the autocratic president of the Maldives for 30 years, has allowed a six-party coalition led by 41-year old Mohamed (Anni) Nasheed of the Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) to beat him by 54.2% to 45.8% of the vote in this week’s second round of polls. Mr Gayoom failed to win a clear victory earlier this month.
The remarkable thing is that Mr Gayoom seems firstly to have misjudged his chances of winning and then, having lost, to have realised it was time to go – a rare event for any top leader in politics or in business.
In the past, he has repeatedly blocked moves towards democracy and has fixed election results – this time he didn’t do that enough. In 2004, when pro-democracy protests turned violent, he declared an emergency that led to the imposition of some international sanctions.
Maybe he has learned from what happened to the Nepalese monarchy, which was swept from power because King Gayanendra handled the opposition so crassly, and also from the debilitating chaos of Pakistan and Bangladesh. Faced with growing political unrest, the beginnings of Islamic extremism, economic problems, and criticism about his alleged corruption, he seems to have decided he still has a chance of a peaceful retirement. Or maybe he dreams of Mr Nasheed failing and him being recalled.
“I don’t like being beaten in sports. I don’t like being beaten in politics. But it is a fact of life that sometimes you win, sometimes you lose,” Reuters has reported him as saying yesterday. “In that spirit, I accept this verdict of the people.” The outgoing and incoming presidents held a joint press conference (see picture) after the results were announced, and both pledged to ensure a smooth transition to full democracy.
Mr Nasheed has said his predecessor would not have to face criminal charges and could have a “comfortable stay” in the Maldives, though some political activists want him to be tried for corruption and mis-rule. He has been widely condemned for his lavish life-style, while most of the 300,000 (Sunni Muslim) population live in poverty – contrasting sharply with the top-end luxury resorts on the archipelago’s many islands. Male, the capital, is said to be the world’s most congested city with 90,000 people living in a square mile.
A maritime engineer from the UK’s Liverpool University, after being at Dauntsey’s public (i.e. private) school in Wiltshire, Mr Nasheed became a journalist in the Maldives. He has been frequently locked up in jail and work-camps for a total of six years.
Now he has to manage the Maldives’ difficult transition to democratic rule and face almost certainly unrealisable expectations. He will be under pressure to introduce reforms to improve housing and health care, tackle extensive drug use and rising crime, and to release political prisoners that number 300 according to human rights activists.
And, maybe most difficult of all, he will have to find ways of satisfying the personal and political ambitions of his coalition partners, including one conservative Islamic party. How he manages to handle these reportedly greedy supporters will determine whether or not the Maldives is better off with its new democratic rule.