MALDIVES: Democracy at the end of a bumpy road in paradise
Thomas Cromwell

The Maldives is said to be the first country likely to disappear in a warmer world with rising oceans. The highest point is 2.4 meters above sea level, and some 80 percent of the territory of the country’s 26 atolls and 1,190 coral islands is no more than one meter high.

But it has not been the prospect of imminent disappearance under the waves of the Indian Ocean that in recent years has engaged the almost 400,000 residents who make the Maldives their home. Rather, it has been a bumpy ride from decades of one-party, one-man rule to full democracy.

In August 2004 discontent boiled over into riots, prompting long-time president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, to promise reform. Political parties were allowed in 2005 and in August last year a referendum endorsed the president’s proposal for a presidential form of government.

In August this year, a new constitution was ratified.

In a recent interview, the Maldives’ newly arrived (and first) ambassador to Washington, Mohamed Hussain Maniku, discussed with the situation in his country and expectations for the national elections planned for October 8.

The ambassador said that under the new constitution the unicameral parliament will seat two delegates for each of 20 atolls. (There are 200 inhabited islands, and 80 that are used for resorts.) For the more heavily populated atolls, for every 5,000 residents over a base of 5,000 an additional representative will be granted a seat in parliament.

Ambassador Maniku noted that there are no term limits for parliamentarians, but presidents will be limited to two five-year terms. There are 12 parties registered now, “but only three or four major parties,” the ambassador said. He expects two major parties to emerge in time.

As is often the case in such transitions, President Gayoom is a candidate in the upcoming election and under the constitution can hold office for a final two terms (he originally took office in 1978 and is in his sixth term now).

The president “sees himself as someone who can deliver reform to its completion,” the ambassador explained. Part of the transition involves moving businessmen out of ministerial positions, and replacing them with elected citizens. In other words, the cozy relationship between business and politics is ending.

Tourism is the main economic engine of the Maldives, which offers visitors a tropical paradise, with most resorts on their own island. Some 750,000 tourists visit each year, most of them from European countries, especially Germany and Italy. Tourism accounts for 28 percent of GDP and 90 percent of government revenue, from related taxes.

The ambassador noted that for some time the government was reluctant to limit tourism developments to islands close to the capital, Male, but now the fact that resorts are environmentally friendly has meant that they are being located further afield.

Most travel among the islands is carried out on sea planes and by boat. But among the infrastructure plans is an expansion of the main airport that serves Male by extending the small island it sits on to connect to Male itself with a land bridge raised to two meters above sea level. In addition, the government is requiring new tourism projects to include airports in their developments.

Another project is to build a container transshipment terminal in the northern part of the country.

At the same time, the government is following what is called a “Safer Island Concept”. This means it has identified islands that are least likely to be submerged by rising seas, and is developing those most actively, to attract residents to live there.

The ambassador said that investments are sought for roads, sea and air transport infrastructure. “We need to build domestic airports.”

“We are increasingly facing the erosion of some of the islands,” the ambassador said. “It is very serious for the Maldives.” He noted that bleaching of the corals is a concern, and that “the Maldives may not be there in 100 years.”

Fishing is a traditional industry in the Maldives, and the government is also encouraging financial services companies to locate there. As the Tsunami of 2004 showed, tourism is always susceptible to the whims of weather.