Maldives election chaos fuels 'banana republic' fears

COLOMBO - The Maldives embraced multi-party democracy in 2008 hoping to emerge a modern nation. Five years on, there are fears the honeymoon islands are becoming a "banana republic" ready to implode.

The political crisis came to a head Saturday when police blocked elections designed to restore stability after the first democratically elected leader, Mohamed Nasheed, was toppled 20 months ago.

But observers say there should no surprise at the turmoil as key institutions are still run by followers of the country's long-time dictator who never accepted Nasheed's 2008 victory.

"After a long tradition of one-party rule, the Maldives is now fast becoming a banana republic," said regional defence analyst Iqbal Athas.

"My real fear is that all this political unrest can turn into violent chaos," added Athas, associate editor of the Colombo-based Sunday Times.

Athas said instability could have consequences for regional security because of the huge Indian Ocean trade.

The 1,192 tiny coral islands of the Maldives may be home to only 350,000 mainly Sunni Muslims.

But scattered some 850 kilometres (530 miles) across the equator, they are an important location along east-west sea trade.

Pro-Western Nasheed, a former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, was forced to resign following a mutiny by police who are still thought to be loyal to former autocrat Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, 75.

It was the same police force that prevented the independent Elections Commission from going ahead with Saturday's presidential poll, which Nasheed, 46, was widely expected to win.

Given that Nasheed was widely forecast to win an outright majority in Saturday's vote, its scuttling came as no surprise with the Supreme Court having also played its role.

Nasheed's main challenger, Gayoom's half-brother Abdullah Yameen, was a distant second to Nasheed in a the first round of voting held on September 7.

But the result was annulled by the Supreme Court last month following allegations of irregularities in voter lists, although foreign monitors gave the polls a clean chit.

By stipulating that all candidates had to approve the voter lists, the court effectively gave Nasheed's challengers carte blanche to block a vote they were sure to lose.

"The problem with the Maldives is they adopted Western-style democracy without proper institutions to support the transition," a Western diplomat accredited to the Maldives said.

Gayoom ruled the Maldives with an iron fist for 30 years until he lost the first multi-party election in 2008 to Nasheed. Until then, it was an offence in the Maldives to put oneself forward as a presidential hopeful.

Despite the outward veneer of democracy, observers say Gayoom's supporters still control key levers of power such as the judiciary.

An exasperated Nasheed ordered the military to arrest a criminal court judge on charges of a politically motivated decision in 2011.

The move backfired leading to a police mutiny that eventually forced him to resign and later say he was ousted in a coup.

Nasheed's then deputy, Mohamed Waheed took over the leadership and was seen by Western and Asian diplomats as Gayoom's puppet.

"Gayoom has his tentacles everywhere in the administration so he can still call the shots from behind the scenes," said another Colombo-based diplomat.

"He built a formidable machinery in the three decades he was in office."

The outgoing Waheed's regime is trying Nasheed for ordering the incarceration of a judge accused of corruption. He was allowed to run for president only after intense international pressure to ensure an "inclusive election".

If convicted, Nasheed faces up to three years in jail or banishment to a remote island.

Nasheed has long feared Gayoom loyalists would do whatever they could to prevent him returning to power.

"They do not want me to be president," Nasheed told AFP in an interview last year.

"You can bring down a dictator in a day, but it can take years to stamp out the remnants of his dictatorship."

He admitted failure to reform the judiciary in the first year of his office, but blamed his woes on a hostile parliament.

Despite the turmoil, the country has so far this year attracted nearly one million tourists to its pristine beaches and turquoise seas popular with upmarket honeymooners.

With holidaymakers usually rushed straight from the airport to exclusive resorts, few are even aware of the simmering discord.

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