Democracy has wa-shed ashore in the world’s top honeymoon destination after Asia’s longest-ruling dictator, Mamoon Abdul Gayoom, was defeated in the first-ever democratic elections held in Maldives. Till the elections were held on October 28, Gayoom had won six consecutive five-year terms in straight ‘yes’ or ‘no’ referendums. No Opposition parties were allowed to participate in these referendums.
The man who will replace the long-serving Gayoom is his former political prisoner, Mohamed Nasheed. Although inexperience was used as the biggest argument against Nasheed, the President-elect believes that at 41 years, he is on the right side of his political career. The man, who smiles like Santa Claus and has his shirt sleeves often rolled up to his elbows, is the exact opposite of the 71-year-old, Saville Row suit-clad dictator, Gayoom. Popu-larly called Anni, Nasheed has modest policy-making exper-ience but his strident attack against Gayoom’s long regime has led Maldivians to choose him to lead the country into a new era of democracy.
Gayoom, a former Egyptian-trained Islamic cleric, ruled the nation of 370,000 like his personal sultanate for three decades. True, he has been credited with transforming a sleepy, fishing community to the world’s top luxury destination, but at the same time, he has also been accused of stashing away public money in his foreign bank accounts and even stealing $80 million from the tsunami relief fund. But most overwhelmingly, Gayoom and his government have faced allegations of human rights abuses, including arbitrary arrests, torture and custodial deaths.
Deciding Gayoom’s fate would be the first test for this nascent democracy. After he won the country’s first-ever democratic elections against a dictator who till now had managed to violently suppress any kind of dissenting voices, it would have been natural if the new leader spoke of retribution. But just hours after the change, Nasheed made it clear that the foundations of the new democracy will not be built on revenge and Gayoom will not be banished from the country as he had been.
Democracy has reached the white sandy coasts after only four years of struggle. But charting the future will not be easy. The new leader not only inherits one of the most lucrative tourist destinations in the world but also the challenges that face the archipelago: poverty, drug abuse, rising Islamic fundamentalism and local resentment against ‘apar-theid’ tourism. More alarmingly, rising sea levels due to global warming threaten the string of 1,192 coral islands.
The young leader, often hailed as the country’s Nelson Mandela, has promised to ensure a fairer distribution of wealth while maintaining its lucrative tourist trade. However, his immediate and biggest challenge will be to string together a team that can, like him, take change in its stride, and not only usher in democracy but also build a new future for a young country where 40 per cent of the population is below 30 years of age.
Many Maldivians feel that Nasheed’s Cabinet should have young leaders who understand the aspirations of the youth. But he should realise that a portion of the burden of democracy should also rest on mature shoulders, shoulders that have steadily been at his side since the first pro-democracy protests hit the cobbled roads of Male.
Sumon K Chakrabarti is National Affairs Correspondent, CNN-IBN