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HindustanTimes Wed,16 Apr 2014

World

Maldives faces democracy test on Saturday
Agencies
Male, September 05, 2013
First Published: 10:06 IST(5/9/2013)
Last Updated: 14:32 IST(14/9/2013)

The Indian Ocean archipelago of the Maldives goes to the polls on Saturday for a presidential election that will test its young democracy 18 months after a violent change in leadership.

The outcome and conduct of the election also has regional repercussions, with the sea-faring nation becoming a new area of competition between India and China.
 
Recently, a high-level team of Indian observers left for Maldives to monitor the poll process and meet representatives of political parties.
 
The team, which includes former chief election commissioners JM Lyngdoh, BB Tandon and N Gopalaswami and former Indian High Commissioner to Maldives SM Gavai, will visit polling stations spread across different islands.

"India is committed to strengthening the institutions of democracy in the Maldives. In this context, the Election Commission of India is working closely with the Elections Commission of Maldives to further strengthen its capacity," said a statement from the Indian High Commission here.

"India is also arranging for the training of Maldivian Judges in India and working closely with the Majlis (parliament)," it said.
 
In February 2012, political unrest in Maldives briefly threatened the country's vital tourism sector, which draws a million well-heeled visitors a year, following the ousting of former president Mohamed Nasheed.

Nasheed, a scuba-diving former democracy activist, won the Maldives' first free vote in 2008, but resigned last year after a mutiny by police officers.

The 46-year-old denounced it as a coup, saying he was forced to step down at gunpoint, and accused then vice-president Mohamed Waheed of conspiring with former dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom to replace him.

Waheed's ascent to the presidency sparked months of protests and violent clashes, meaning observers -- particularly regional power India -- are anxious for a clear and uncontested result on Saturday.

Waheed, a Stanford-educated former UN diplomat who lacks his own political base, is widely forecast to come last in Saturday's election.

The other candidates are Gasim Ibrahim, a resort tycoon and one of the country's richest men, and Abdulla Yameen, the wealthy half-brother of former autocrat Gayoom.

That the election is taking place on schedule is seen as an achievement by foreign diplomats, who have pressured the administration to ensure a court case against Nasheed did not prevent him from campaigning.

Nasheed says the abuse of power charges against him are politically motivated.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called for a "credible and peaceful" vote  -- a hope shared by Maldivians, who know the country's relative prosperity relies on tourists.

Sim Ibrahim Mohamed, the long-time former head of the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry, says that the unrest last year caused alarm as mobs torched police stations and government buildings.

The role of Islamist politicians in the leadership change, and their reward with cabinet jobs under Waheed, also highlighted the Maldives' turn towards more fundamentalist Islam, undermining its image as a laid-back paradise destination.

The sea-faring nation has also become a new area of competition between India and China.

Its more than 1,000 islands sit aside the world's most important east west shipping channel and its strategic location was appreciated by former colonial master Britain, which ran a military base there until 1976.

The Waheed administration alienated New Delhi last December by aligning with known India antagonists and terminating Indian group GMR's contract to run the international airport.

A new Chinese embassy which opened in 2011 has also raised eyebrows.

If no candidate secures a majority on Saturday, a run-off poll is scheduled for September 28.


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