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Perspectives

November 4, 2008
Maldives unseats Asia’s longest-serving ruler

While “change” has been a theme in the U.S. presidential election, it was also crucial in Maldives — where President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom led for 30 years. Anti-Gayoom graffiti in Maldives advocates “change” leading up to the Oct. 8 election.

The small island nation of Maldives went to the polls for the first time in three decades this year in the country’s first democratic election.

Longtime leader Maumoon Abdul Gayoom — who ruled the nation since 1978 — lost the election to former political prisoner Mohamed “Anni” Nasheed in a runoff vote following the initial Oct. 8 election.

Judith Evans is editor of the Maldives-based national news Web site MinivanNews and writes about the historic election at OpenDemocracy.

The Maldives: A democratic revolution

The citizens of the tiny Indian Ocean nation of the Maldives witnessed an extraordinary moment on 29 October 2008. A live broadcast on state television depicted the autocratic president who had ruled the country since 1978 standing beside his greatest political rival – and acknowledging his defeat in the just-concluded two-round election.

The scene in the opulent president’s office was at once riveting and surreal. Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, after all, had been prepared for many years to use state power to repress opposition and crush dissent; yet here was the 71-year-old leader telling the nation: “I accept the will of the people. I have conceded the elections.” Alongside was the 41-year-old Mohamed Nasheed, who had spent a significant period of his adult life as a political prisoner only to emerge as the principal challenger to Gayoom – and ultimately the victor in the country’s first-ever multi-candidate presidential election.

The spirit of reconciliation was almost as astonishing as the fact of the meeting itself. Here was Gayoom bowing out with more dignity than he had shown throughout much of his long reign; here was Nasheed, a compelling figure who had become the international face of the Maldives’s reform movement, saying he would not take action against the man whose security forces have tortured him, fed him ground glass and kept him in solitary confinement for as long as eighteen months at a stretch. “He is going to be staying with us. I don’t think we should be going for a witch-hunt and digging up the past”, said the man widely known as “Anni”.

A democratic election in an authoritarian state, followed by a peaceful acceptance of the opposition’s victory, is rare enough – and enough of a contrast with the experience of so many countries around the world, from Burma to Zimbabwe – as to be a cause for celebration. The always overplayed image of a Maldives paradise has for once acquired reality – and in politics rather in the tourist brochures.

After this shining moment, the deeper social problems that are part of the legacy of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s years in power will take a long time to overcome. Now, however, the experience of this democratic election – and the signals of a peaceful transition of power – have created a precedent that will surely be of immense value to the Maldives’s future.

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user niOS under a Creative Commons license.

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