Even a few months ago it, would have been unthinkable that the day would come when the Maldives would have a new President. Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Asia’s longest serving leader, who has ruled the Maldives uncontested since 1978, has now admitted defeat and offered his congratulations to his long-standing opponent, Mohamed Nasheed, now declared the winner after a run-off in the presidential election.
The nation’s first democratic presidential election has been a close race. President Gayoom won the first round this month, but failed to secure the 50 percent needed for outright victory. With all the votes counted in the second round, Mr. Nasheed, a former political prisoner, won 54 percent to Mr. Gayoom’s 46 percent.
Mr. Nasheed, leader of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party, is a slightly built man with a fierce determination who has endured imprisonment, beatings and torture during his long campaign to oust Mr. Gayoom. When I was at the BBC, phone calls and texts would arrive regularly from Mr. Nasheed and his supporters alerting us to news of fresh attacks on the opposition.
This is a typical example from April, 2007: “MDP Chairperson Mohamed Nasheed has been severely beaten and arrested at a cemetery while paying his respects to a man suspected to have died in police custody. Nasheed was singled out in the crowd of those at the cemetery for attack, beaten with batons by the police, and is currently in police custody. MDP fears that he is not receiving medical treatment for his injuries.”
One of Mr. Nasheed’s last texts made a brief appeal: “You must help us, the country is descending into chaos.” Mr. Nasheed would ask for a meeting or chat when he was in London, arguing passionately for more media coverage while reeling off a catalogue of cases of alleged human rights violations by the government. I would explain that news from his nation tended to get crowded out by events in Pakistan, Afghanistan and other news hotspots.
Opponents branded Mr. Gayoom as a ruthless dictator determined to hang on to power at all costs. But there were ministers in his government who hoped to persuade him to introduce reform gradually without destabilizing the country and harming the lucrative tourism industry. One of them was former Foreign Minister Ahmed Shaheed, a dynamic young politician widely regarded at the time as the acceptable face of the Gayoom government. I remember him coming to our house about a couple of years ago when he spoke about his negotiations behind the scenes with opposition supporters to try to reach a compromise on their demands for greater democracy. Some months later, a text arrived from him saying he was offering his resignation because his efforts to persuade President Mr. Gayoom to fulfill his promise of introducing political change were getting nowhere.
The Maldives is a small country made up of about 1200 islands in the Indian Ocean, though less than two-hundred are inhabited. Its capital, Male, is only about two square kilometers. This has meant that politics in the country is a very personal affair. I remember one occasion when Dr. Shaheed was still a government minister. We had set up a studio interview with Mariyam Didi, a bright and attractive woman who used to be Attorney General. She had switched to the opposition when she found she could no longer condone the government’s actions. She regarded Mr. Gayoom as an uncle and made it clear that her opposition wasn’t personal, she still had respect for him as an older member of the extended family.
We were looking for a government response to Mariyam Didi’s interview. Dr Shaheed agreed to speak although, as it turned out, he had been married to Maryam’s sister and still chatted regularly about family matters. There was no rancor between them despite being on opposing sides.
The presidential election came about after a sustained pro-democracy campaign led by Mohamed Nasheed and backed by international pressure. Many politicians like Mohamed Nasheed, Ahmed Shaheed and others on both sides of the political fence grew up together. This election has left a country deeply divided and bruised. One of Mr. Nasheed’s loyal and close supporters said he thought the new President would be magnanimous in victory and give priority to bringing the nation together as a family. This will be a challenging time for the new President who will have to convince the country that he will be a genuine force for change and will right the wrongs of the past.