The recent visit of President Gayoom has brought the focus back on happenings in Maldives. When tsunami hit the smallest state of South Asia, on 26 December 2004, it not only put brakes on the fastest growing economy in the region, but also led to the postponement of the elections for Majlis scheduled on 31 December 2004. The elections that ultimately took place in January 2005 clearly exhibited that a significant section of the society was opposed to the policies of the government and was clamouring for a multiparty democracy.
Last year was a landmark year for the Maldives. The political dissent, which had surfaced in late 2003 after a number of years, continued to change the political landscape in this tiny Indian Ocean nation. In the face of protests from the opposition Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) the president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in August 2004 declared a state of emergency, arresting many pro-democracy activists and using tear gas to disperse more than four thousand protesters who had rallied in a rare show of dissent in capital Male, which houses approximately one third of the island nation's population of 278,000. Faced with international pressure and demands from dissidents in exile, President Gayoom had promised democratic reforms after the elections in January 2005.
In the last presidential elections held in 2003, President Gayoom was re-elected by the Majlis for a sixth five-year term and was ratified in a national referendum where he received 90.3% of the votes cast. Immediately after starting his fresh term he dismissed from the cabinet the Attorney General Dr Mohamed Munavvar and the Minister of Planning and National Development Ibrahim Hussain Zaki. The two were alleged to have been removed for supporting reformers attempting to register a political party. In November 2003 MDP, which had been prevented from registering as a political party in Maldives, was established by dissidents based abroad.
In May 2004 elections were held for a People's Special Majlis (constitutional assembly) with the purpose of amending the Constitution. In early June President Gayoom announced his agenda for constitutional reforms, which would allow political parties, limit the term of the President to two five-year tenures, give more powers to the Parliament, create the post of Prime Minister and separate the judiciary, legislature and executive. However, the People's Special Majlis, which was sworn in on 15 June 2004 and convened on 19 July 2004, was immediately suspended as 24 members walked out and raised anti government slogans.
In August 2004 an opposition led crowd attempted to storm the NSS headquarters to free some political prisoners that led to the stabbing of some policemen and arrest of 200 anti government activists. The Government termed it as a 'coup attempt' and imposed an indefinite state of emergency. Armoured Personnel Carriers were deployed and telephone and internet services were temporarily suspended. The opposition MDP accused the government of 'ruthlessly suppressing dissent'. An EU fact finding team invited by the President expressed concern about the continuing detention without charges of the alleged protestors and the ongoing state of emergency. By early September most people had been released while about 60 continued in detention, which included the former Attorney-General Dr Mohamed Munavvar and some members of the People's Special Majlis. In December 2004, the government charged four dissidents, including former planning minister Ibrahim Zaki, with coup attempt to overthrow the President. A conviction could mean a life sentence for all the four accused.
The elections were held in January 2005 on non-party basis. Forty-two legislators were elected by more than 70 percent of the 156, 766 eligible voters. All the 20 atolls and the capital Male elected two legislators. The MDP claims it won 18 of the 42 seats in the parliamentary elections, with pro-government candidates winning 22 and independents two. But the government claims that at least 30 candidates are pro-government, and only eight are pro-MDP. The figures cannot be reconciled because the Election Commission cannot identify candidates by their political parties, which remain banned. All candidates officially ran as independents, although most voters know their political leanings. The election of large number of opposition candidates especially from Male has upped the ante for removal of President Gayoom. The fact that the opposition members represent the constituencies with most number of electorates and in terms of electorates represented the combined opposition members probably represent more electorates than the government members, has put the President under some pressure.
The reforms and the promised transition to multiparty democracy are progressing slowly in fits and bounds. The special Majlis, which had been tasked to develop a new constitution, has virtually remained in suspended animation since its inauguration on 19 July 2004. The opposition has tried to depict President Gayoom as a despot but has not succeeded in its efforts. Although the political system that exists in Maldives favours status quo, Gayoom himself has shown a penchant for reforms and has promised multi-party democracy within a year.