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The opposition Maldivian People’s Party (DRP) won the largest number of seats in February 2011 local council elections. In May, the DRP accused the government of using violence against demonstrators in Malé, the capital, who were protesting against rising prices. Antigovernment demonstrations erupted again in December, with tens of thousands taking to the streets of the capital.
The Maldives achieved independence in 1965 after 78 years as a British protectorate, and a 1968 referendum replaced the centuries-old sultanate with a republican system. The first president, Amir Ibrahim Nasir, held office for 10 years. He was succeeded by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who served six five-year terms. Gayoom repeatedly renewed his mandate through a tightly controlled system of presidential referendums rather than competitive elections.
Gayoom initiated political reforms after the beating death of a prison inmate sparked riots in 2003. A People’s Special Majlis (PSM), composed of lawmakers and other elected and appointed delegates, was tasked with amending the constitution in 2004. The next several years brought incremental improvements to the legislative, judicial, and media frameworks, interspersed with bouts of unrest, crackdowns on the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), and restrictions on freedom of expression.
In June 2008, the PSM approved a new constitution. Under pressure from opposition demonstrators, the president in August ratified the new charter, which included protection for a range of civil liberties while maintaining restrictions on religious freedom. The country’s first multiparty presidential election was held in October. Gayoom outpolled five challengers in the first round, taking 41 percent of the vote, but MDP leader and former political prisoner Mohamed Nasheed won the runoff with 54 percent. The poll was deemed relatively free and fair, though observers reported flaws including some preelection violence and voter registration problems.
Nasheed’s immediate priorities included anticorruption measures, government decentralization, and press freedom. The government in 2009 abolished the Atolls Ministry, appointed seven provincial state ministers, and published a draft decentralization bill. The president also abolished the Information Ministry, and introduced draft bills guaranteeing freedom of expression and press freedom that remained under consideration by the parliament at the end of 2010. These plans for reform remained largely hindered by the opposition in 2011.
In the May 2009 parliamentary elections, Gayoom’s Maldivian People’s Party (DRP) won 28 of 77 seats, while the MDP captured 26, the DRP-allied People’s Alliance (PA) took 7, and independents garnered 13. A Commonwealth observer team characterized the voting as largely transparent and competitive, despite minor problems related to the compilation of the voter list and some other irregularities.
Nasheed’s cabinet resigned in June 2010, citing frustration over continued efforts by the opposition-controlled legislature to block the reforms supported by the president. Nasheed reappointed the cabinet a week later, though the parliament refused to ratify the appointments. In December 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that seven cabinet members who had not been approved by the opposition-led parliament had to step down from office. Following the court decision, the president appointed new ministers and acting ministers.
In February 2011 local council elections, the DRP won a majority of seats, particularly in major population centers.
In May 2011, protesters marched in Malé, the capital, to express their frustration with rising food prices and unemployment. The DRP blamed the price increases on the government’s devaluation of the nation’s currency; the government, however, said the increases were the result of rising global commodity prices. Riot police used tear gas and batons to break up the protests, and the government accused the protesters of initiating the violence during the demonstrations. During several nights of protests, police arrested many activists including opposition member Umar Naseer. In December, an opposition alliance was formed against Nasheed, culminating in a December 23 mass rally attended by tens of thousands of demonstrators who alleged that Nasheed’s government had failed to protect Islamic values.
The Republic of Maldives is an electoral democracy. Under the 2008 constitution, the president is directly elected for up to two five-year terms. The 2009 Parliamentary Constituencies Act increased the size of the unicameral People’s Majlis to 77 seats, with members elected from individual districts to serve five-year terms. The president, parliament members, and other key officials are required to be Sunni Muslims. Since political parties were legalized in 2005, more than a dozen have registered.
Under former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, government accountability was limited by the executive branch’s almost complete control over the legislature and judiciary. However, a new, independent auditor general and the revised constitution have provided greater transparency, shedding light on pervasive corruption. An Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) was established in 2008 and opened dozens of cases in 2009; however, none of these cases had been resolved as of the end of 2011. In August 2011, the ACC conducted a search of the parliament building to seize the financial statements of members of parliament who had not disclosed their financial records; the constitution requires all members of parliament to report financial information. The Maldives was ranked 134 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution guarantees freedoms of expression and the press. While restrictions on speech deemed “contrary to the tenets of Islam” remain in place, defamation was decriminalized in 2009. Private print media have expanded and present a diversity of viewpoints, though some publications are still owned by Gayoom allies. The number of private radio stations has also increased, and the country’s first private television channels began operating in 2008, though their legal protections remain limited. The 2010 Broadcasting Act established a commission to oversee the licensing and regulatory process. Legislation to transform the state broadcaster into the Maldives Broadcasting Corporation, an independent public-service entity, was passed in April 2010, but the government delayed implementing the handover until 2011. In May 2011, the International Federation of Journalists expressed concern that government authorities had injured a number of journalists covering the protests in Malé. The blocking of Christian websites by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MIA) remains an issue.
Freedom of religion remains severely restricted. Islam is the state religion, and all citizens are required to be Sunni Muslims. Imams must use government-approved sermons. The MIA has sole authority to grant licenses to preachers; a number of members of the Islamist Adhaalath Party hold senior positions in the ministry. In May 2010, the MIA introduced new regulations under the 1994 Religious Unity Act that allow the ministry to oversee the curriculum for religious education in schools, create new criteria for preaching licenses for imams, and deport those who openly preach a faith other than Islam. Non-Muslim foreigners, including approximately 70,000 guest workers on long-term visas, are allowed to observe their religions only in private. There were no reported limitations on academic freedom, but many scholars self-censor.
The constitution guarantees freedom of assembly. The DRP accused police of using excessive force against demonstrators during the May 2011 protests, alleging that hundreds of civilians were injured during the clashes. Nongovernmental organizations are allowed to form in the Maldives, but struggle with funding and issues of long-term viability in a weak civil society environment. The constitution and the 2008 Employment Act allow workers to form trade unions and to strike. In response to a series of strikes, the country’s first labor tribunal was established in December 2008 to enforce the Employment Act. In 2009, the Maldives joined the International Labour Organization.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and judges were sworn into the first Supreme Court and final court of appeals in 2008. Courts have subsequently shown signs of increased independence from the executive. To further separate the two branches, the president established the Judicial Services Commission in 2009, although concerns remain about its composition. Civil law is used in most cases, but it is subordinate to Sharia (Islamic law), which is applied in matters not covered by civil law and in cases involving divorce or adultery. As a result, the testimony of two women is equal to that of one man, and punishments such as internal exile continue to be carried out.
The constitution bans arbitrary arrest, torture, and prolonged detention without adequate judicial review. The current administration has initiated police reform and established a parole board to recommend sentence reductions for unjustly detained inmates. However, progress on improving prison conditions has been slow, and abuses continue. In September 2011, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) issued a report providing policy recommendations to help reduce the number of offenders in the penal system.
Women are increasingly entering the civil service and receiving pay equal to that of men, though opportunities are sometimes limited by traditional norms. Women hold few senior government positions, though the president appointed several women to high-ranking posts in 2009 and 2010. The new constitution allows a woman to become president. International human rights groups have urged reform of severe legal punishments that primarily affect women, including the sentence of flogging for extramarital sex. The UNDP initiated a training program to help women run in the 2011 local council elections; there were 224 female candidates, and 54 were elected. Homosexual activity is against the law.