10/29/2008, 00.00
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Mohamed Nasheed, a former political prisoner, is the Maldives’ new president

The Gayoom era that began in 1978 ends in the first democratic elections. The president-elect pledges a “peaceful transition” and reforms. In the tourist paradise where there is no religious freedom, 70 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line.
Malé (AsiaNews) – The Maldives have a new president; he is Mohamed Nasheed, leader of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) who yesterday in a runoff defeated his rival, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who had ruled the archipelago since 1978.

Nasheed (pictured voting), a former political prison, won 54 per cent of the vote, becoming the Maldives first democratically-elected president.

During the first round of presidential elections on 8 October many of those who were hoping for a change at the top saw their hopes dashed.

Among the six candidates then running, the now former President Gayoom had the highest score with 40 per cent. But in the runoff he secured only 46 per cent of the votes in the run-off poll in which nearly 87 per cent of the nation's 209,000 registered voters cast their ballots

The majority chose instead the MDP leader who still bears the scars of the torture he endured in the country’s prisons.

“I want a peaceful transition; [. . .] I want my supporters to be calm,” Nasheed said after election officials confirmed his victory and Gayoom conceded defeat.

In the campaign both candidates traded accusations.

The MDP leader charged his adversary with patronage and corruption, running the government as a fiefdom, in a society with widespread social injustice, divided between a tiny minority and a majority, 70 per cent of whom live below the poverty line.

For his part the man who ran the country for 30 years credited himself with Maldives’ economic growth and for its soft road to reforms. Instead he accused Nasheed of wanting to convert the country’s Muslim population to Christianity.

The new president will now have to face such issues. In August the country’s constitution was modified, with changes coming into effect at the start of September.

The international community has welcomed these changes as a first step in the process of democratisation the country needs. But the journey is still long before the Maldives can be considered truly free and democratic.

One important issue that needs to be addressed is freedom of religion. Indeed the tourist paradise, famous around the world for its natural beauty, does not allow its own citizens to practice any religion other than Sunni Islam.

Although not addressed during the campaign, the hegemonic place granted Islam by the constitution will have to be on the president’s agenda and not only because it violates religious freedom. The archipelago is in fact not immune to Islamic extremism and has experienced attacks blamed on Islamic militants.

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