Maldives Rejects Leader in Election

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Lakruwan Wanniarachchi / AFP /Getty Images

Supporters of Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) presidential candidate Mohamed 'Anni' Nasheed celebrate after his win on October 29, 2008

The Indian Ocean island nation of the Maldives has weathered cyclones and tsunamis, but never before has it experienced sweeping change of the sort ushered in on Oct. 28. By the next day, it was clear that President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom — whose 30-year reign marked him as Asia's longest serving leader — had been toppled in the country's first-ever democratic elections by a man whom he had imprisoned just a decade ago. After coming second in multi-party polls earlier in October, 41-year-old Mohamed Nasheed beat Gayoom in a run-off contest by a nearly 10% margin — a gulf wide enough for the oft-dictatorial Gayoom to concede defeat over state radio even before all the ballots were counted.

To the outside world, this tiny archipelago nation of some 300,000 people exists mostly in ads for sun-dappled luxury holidays. The Maldives lie southeast of India, a jumble of nearly 20,000 idyllic islands and azure lagoons nestled in coral atolls (a word for reef formations which came to English, fittingly, from Dhivehi, the local Maldivian tongue). Gayoom, 71, is chiefly responsible for building up the lucrative tourism sector — which has fast become the country's leading industry, ahead of its traditional fisheries. It has made Maldivians — at least statistically — the most affluent people in South Asia, and the country host to waves of Hollywood celebrities who pay thousands of dollars for the chance to spend a night on their own white sand isle.

But there has always been a darker side to this paradise. Since coming to power in 1978, Gayoom has tended to run the Maldives as his personal sultanate, awarding seats in government to members of his own family while, to this day, 40% of the population earn less than a dollar a day. Political parties were banned and dissent stifled while Gayoom periodically renewed his own mandate through elections with only one name on the ballot. "There was a catalog of human rights violations," says Abbas Faiz, a South Asia researcher for Amnesty International. "Authorities could detain anyone and treat them the way they wanted. Torture was widespread." Nasheed, a fiery critic of the regime who came to prominence as a writer of subversive anti-government polemics, was repeatedly detained on grounds of sedition, according to rights groups. He claims to have been kept in solitary confinement for 18 months and to have been chained by national security agents to a chair and left outside for 12 days. In 1996, his struggle earned him recognition as an Amnesty International "Prisoner of Conscience."

Opposition to Gayoom's rule reached a peak in late 2003, when news leaked of government violence against political prisoners led to mass protests on the streets of the Maldives' capital, Male. "We had been telling the population that they deserved better," says Ahmed Moosa, a prominent opposition figure who said he fled to London after receiving death threats from elements within Gayoom's government. "Now we were able to expose the regime for the crimes it had committed." International pressure and defections from his own cadres slowly forced Gayoom to change tack and speak of democratic reform. Ibrahim Hussein Zaki served for ten years as a minister in Gayoom's cabinet, but quit to help found the rebel Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) in November 2003 alongside Nasheed. "I realized that change could never come from within. This was a family regime, not the people's regime," he told TIME.

October's elections come after five years of campaigning on the part of Nasheed and the opposition — and numerous more detentions at the hands of the government. By 2005, Gayoom introduced a "roadmap" toward multi-party democracy, but it is unlikely the incremental changes allowed in the past few years would have come about without the efforts of activists who had long been frozen out of the political mainstream. "A free press, an independent judiciary, an auditor general — it took Gayoom nearly three decades to even consider these things," says Moosa, the self-exiled activist who is also editor of the online Dhivehi Observer.

In the landmark multi-party election on Oct. 8, Gayoom won 40% of the vote amid allegations of irregularities and vote-rigging. The margin wasn't large enough, though, for him to claim total victory and a run-off was scheduled two weeks later against the runner-up, Nasheed. Gayoom launched blistering attacks on his opponent's credibility, pointing to his lack of experience and claiming he was trying to convert Maldivians to Christianity — a weighty accusation in this staunchly Sunni Muslim state. But with all the opposition factions united behind him, Nasheed turned his deficit from the first vote into a significant majority and completed his rise from prison to the halls of power amid scenes of widespread jubilation in Male on Oct. 29.

The charismatic President-elect has urged calm and has already said he will stage snap-elections halfway through his five-year term — a sign, he claims, of his commitment to healthy democracy in the state. Both his ascendant MDP and Gayoom's old regime insist that the transition of governments will be peaceful and efficient. Gayoon addressed the nation magnanimously on state radio, expressing his "full support" for the man who had been a thorn in his side for over a decade. After spending a lifetime warring against Gayoom's dictatorship, Nasheed and his party know they, too, must be graceful in victory. The global financial crisis has sparked fears of a downturn in tourism, while Nasheed must also tend to a budding housing shortage and a staggering drug epidemic: by some estimates, 1 out of every 3 Maldivian youth is a drug addict. "We are not interested in revenge," says the MDP's Zaki. "Now is the time to look to our future."