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MALDIVES: Political Tensions Simmer in Tourist Paradise

Feizal Samath

COLOMBO, Jul 15 2010 (IPS) - Tourists taking in the sun and sand in the idyllic Maldives may be forgiven if they are unaware of the political developments in this country, even when President Mohamed Nasheed’s government teetered on the brink of collapse recently.

After all, tourism, which is the country’s biggest revenue earner, is virtually isolated on some 80 of the country’s 1,100 islands. Access to many of its resorts – most of the Maldives’ islands are uninhabited – takes travel of anything between 30 minutes to several hours by boat.

“The resorts are so far away from the capital (Male), that tourists and staff in the resorts know little that is happening or what is going on. On the resort islands, it’s a world of its own and absolute relaxation,” explained Malin Hapugoda, managing director of Sri Lanka’s Aitken Spence Hotels Group, which has six tourism properties in the Indian Ocean country.

But behind the veneer of leisure and recreation in this tropical paradise lies the fact that the Maldives, which lies next to its closest friends and allies Sri Lanka and India, is finding its transition to democracy quite a bumpy one since a November 2008 poll ousted President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and ended his 30-year iron-fisted rule. That first multi-party democratic poll was won by Nasheed, a former political prisoner who promised democratisation and a campaign against corruption in this country of 309,000 people.

But on top of problems like the global economic slowdown and the impact of climate change, domestic political squabbles have been preoccupying Nasheed. The main opposition parties, which have control of Parliament, had been blocking important bills on privatisation and loans, making it virtually impossible for the government led by Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party to function, government officials say.

This came to a head on Jun. 29, when the Cabinet resigned en masse and complained to the President that it was impossible to function with a hostile Parliament, dominated by the opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party and its allies that include supporters of the former president.

As it is, the ruling party can muster just 30 votes against the opposition’s 35, while the balance of 12 independents generally swing in favour of the opposition when voting on bills.

Some of the government’s biggest projects like as the public-private partnership to develop the airport had been stalled by the deadlock in parliament. Amid this deadlock, which raised questions about where governance was headed in the tiny country, Sri Lanka – itself facing a number of challenges after the end of its military defeat of Tamil separatists last year – mediated in the crisis in its neighbouring country.

On Jul. 7, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa visited the Maldives at Nasheed’s request and met all conflicting parties, after which a committee of six members of Parliament was appointed to resolve the dispute. On Jul. 8, Nasheed reappointed his 13-member Cabinet.

But more challenges lie ahead, including Maldives’ economic woes that the government will to work on with the opposition, even as people expect the democratic transition to deliver more benefits.

Nasheed’s pro-democracy government is grappling with a high budget deficit and a bloated civil service, both remnants of the previous regime.

The government is constrained by limits in commercial borrowings set up by the International Monetary Fund, which has stepped in with a 92 million U.S. dollar bailout package. In addition, plans to privatise services in transportation, health care and airports, in a bid to cut spending, have been stalled by the opposition.

“It’s hard getting used to this for most people, and civil-service pay cuts, plus a rise in power rates, are unpleasant measures to the people,” a woman activist who declined to be named said of the transition in the years after Gayoom.

Workers in the Maldives’ civil service are the highest paid workers in South Asia, earning more than three times than their Sri Lankan counterparts, for instance.

“We try not to take political revenge against corrupt politicians of the former regime because that’s what you don’t do in a democracy. But the government is being blamed for that,” said Mohamed Zuhair, a former journalist and now spokesman for President Nasheed’s office.

Locals were not too happy when, around the time of the recent crisis, the Nasheed government arrested two powerful parliamentary opposition leaders on charges of bribing members of Parliament in a cash-for-vote scandal.

“Change and democracy are not easy to enforce in the Maldives,” an environmentalist remarked in a telephone interview, but requested anonymity.

Still, the country of just 298 square kilometres is rated as the number one business environment in South Asia by World Bank’s ‘Doing Business Indicators’.

Officials say that political difficulties or not, tourists will keep coming to the Maldives. Tourism accounts for a third of its Gross Domestic Product, bringing in more than 500 million dollars annually. More than 655,000 tourists come to the Maldives each year.

“We have a massive plan to develop harbours, roads, infrastructure, in addition to inviting investment on renewable energy projects,” said Mifzal Ahmed, investment advisor at the Maldives Ministry of Economic Development. “In the next 10 years, the Maldives is working toward being a middle-income country where the basic needs of society are provided for.”

He added: “We want to provide value for money to income earners and create a prosperous liberal Muslim country where human rights are protected, there is good gender balance and women’s rights are ensured. That’s the vision of this government.”

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