FILE- In this Feb. 3, 2018, file photo, Maldivian President Yameen Abdul Gayoom, center, arrives to address his supporters in Male, Maldives. The president of the Maldives has asked Parliament to extend a state of emergency by two weeks as political turmoil continues in the country. (AP Photo/Mohamed Sharuhaan, File)
FILE – In this Nov. 17, 2013, file photo, Maldives‘ newly elected President Yaamin Abdul Gayoom recites the oath during his inauguration in Male, Maldives. Gayoom, the brother of the Maldives‘ former authoritarian ruler, was sworn as the country’s new president on Sunday, a day after his runoff victory capped a messy election that raised concerns that the tiny archipelago nation’s new and fragile democracy was in jeopardy. (AP Photo/Sinan Hussain, File)
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – A decade after people took to the streets to welcome democracy to the Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago, voters head to the polls on Sunday in what has become a referendum on whether democracy will stay.
The Maldives‘ third multiparty presidential election is being held five years after incumbent President Yameen Abdul Gayoom began consolidating power, rolling back press and individual freedoms, asserting control over independent governmental institutions and jailing or forcing major political rivals into exile.
“There is a need to reorient ourselves and take stock of what we have lost,” said Ahmed Tholal, a former member of the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives. “There is a need to ask ourselves if we are willing to allow the hard work of democratizing the country to go waste.”
Beyond the postcard image the Maldives has of luxury resorts and white sand beaches, the 400,000 citizens of the former British protectorate have struggled to maintain the democratic system established in 2008.
Yameen has jailed two former presidents including his half-brother, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the Maldives‘ former strongman, his former vice president, two Supreme Court justices, two former defense ministers and scores of others after trials criticized for a lack of due process.
As protests culminating in violent confrontations with police and mass arrests have grown, opposition parties — many of them Yameen’s own former political partners — formed an alliance in exile with the aim of unseating him.
Gulbin Sultana, a researcher on the Maldives at the Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses based in New Delhi, described the state of the country as a “democratic dictatorship” in which Yameen has been carrying out his whims by legally amending the constitution.
But Yameen’s supporters counter that the country’s economy and institutions have grown under him. Yameen’s campaign slogan, “Progress d,” is a nod to the country’s development. Government spokesman Ibrahim Hussain Shihab said Yameen’s administration has always sought to “maintain the rule of law.”
Gross domestic product more than doubled between 1990 and 2015, life expectancy at birth increased and poverty declined, although high youth unemployed and low participation of women in workforce persist, according to the World Bank.
Part of that growth is due to aid and investment from China, which is challenging India‘s long-held position as the dominant outside power throughout South Asia. China considers the Maldives a key cog in its “Belt and Road” project along ancient trade routes through the Indian Ocean and Central Asia.
Former President Mohamed Nasheed has said that the upcoming elections could be the last chance to extricate his country from increasing Chinese influence, which he described as a land grab in the guise of investments in island development.
Political struggle has long beset the string of atolls.
The former British protectorate did not inherit a full parliamentary system of government like many other colonies. In 1953, the 812-year-old sultanate was abolished in favor of a republic, then restored again a year later until 1968. Gayoom came to power in 1978 through a public referendum.
Calls for the recognition of political parties were violently suppressed and activists jailed during Gayoom’s 30-year authoritarian rule.
Nasheed became famous for drawing global attention to the perils of climate change that saw rising sea levels threaten the Maldives‘ coral reefs, which rise less than a meter (3.2 feet) above sea level. “The inundation of the Maldives is just a generation away,” he warned.
But at home, Nasheed struggled to get support from officials still loyal to Gayoom, and resigned in 2012 after losing military and police support over the arrest of a prominent judge. He ran for the presidency again in 2013 — the Maldives‘ second multiparty election — and lost to Gayoom’s half-brother, current President Yameen.
Its control of the courts resulted in a much-criticized trial of Nasheed, who in 2015 was sentenced to 13 years in prison. The vice president, Ahmed Adeeb, was also arrested in 2015 after what the government called a failed assassination attempt on Yameen. Adeeb is currently serving a 33-year prison sentence on terrorism and corruption charges.
A report by the Organized Crime and Reporting Project released earlier this week alleges that Adeep was among many officials including Yameen who illegally leased scores of the country’s more than 1,000 islands for tourism development, keeping tens of millions of dollars in graft in 2014-15.
Yameen’s only contender in Sunday’s election is longtime lawmaker Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, backed by Nasheed who is now living in exile in neighboring Sri Lanka. Nasheed had hoped to run again, but was disqualified because of his outstanding prison sentence.