by Uditha Jayasinghe
MALE, Maldives, Sept. 6 (Xinhua) -- Pink, yellow and green flags flutter above the streets of Maldives as the country gears up for its presidential elections with candidates holding their last rallies on Friday.
Four candidates have entered the fray. Incumbent President Mohamed Waheed, ousted former President Mohamed Nasheed, tycoon Gasim Ibrahim and MP Abdulla Yameen who is the half-brother of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.
Nasheed, who remains the first democratically elected president in the Maldives, was ousted in early 2012, in what he insists was a forced transfer of power. The change promoted his vice president Mohamed Waheed Hassan as the incumbent head of state and he too is contesting as an independent candidate.
However, Nasheed is upbeat of his chances in the Presidential Election that will take place on Sept. 7 and is the only candidate to insist on a first round win. This bold move is also supported by the fact that his Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) is also seen by analysts as the largest in the Indian Ocean group of islands.
"The country is very ready for elections. We also feel that most people have decided on their candidate and we are confident that we will win in a single round," Nasheed told international media, adding that most citizens were displeased with the alleged coup that pushed him out of power 18 months ago.
Nasheed also seems to have a lot of support in urban areas with large numbers of people openly supporting him. Youth in the capital are also scrambling onto the bandwagon but seem uninterested in the voting process preferring to see how the first round of voting will pan out.
"There is a lot of apathy about the elections among the young because we feel that no matter what party comes into power nothing is going to change for us. But we also want to see democracy take root in our country. Personally I think I will wait and vote in the second round," A. Raheem, a 23 year-old professional, told Xinhua.
Nasheed has introduced extensive economic proposals promising to increase welfare, improve infrastructure, open up inhabited islands to tourism and push ahead with the fight against climate change in a five year manifesto.
President Waheed, who controversially took over from Nasheed is contesting as an independent candidate after his party was disqualified as it did not have the mandatory 10,000 registered members.
"We need to provide value addition to our fishing industry and create new sectors. I have already started this and we are focusing on financial and bunkering facilities as new areas of expansion," he told supporters on his campaign rounds outlining plans to create new jobs.
President Waheed further said his government had been trying to curb the deficit and that he had managed to bring it down from 14 percent to 5 percent.
At the start of the year, Waheed was seen as a serious contender but his support base slimmed down considerably after religiously conservative Adhaalath Party (AP) and the Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) left him to back businessman Gasim Ibrahim.
With the third largest party in the country, Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) behind Waheed will be banking on fresh voters inspired by his time at the top post.
Dubbed the richest man in the Maldives, Gasim Ibrahim is a resort tycoon, MP and leader of the Jumhoree Party (JP). Gasim heads the Villa Group of companies, one of the largest private conglomerates in the Maldives, involved in the gas, shipping, aviation, airport, education, media and resort sectors.
Gasim was head of the Special Majlis in charge of drafting the 2008 constitution and served as finance minister from 2005-2008 during the administration of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, overseeing a tripling in expenditure on civil servant salaries and allowances to a point where the government employed almost 12 percent of the population.
Nonetheless, Gasim has been tainted with financial scandal after an audit report revealed that Bank of Maldives, the country' s largest state run bank, loaned Villa Group over 37 million U.S. dollars, which was 32.4 percent of the bank's entire capital, while Gasim was the finance minister.
Gasim has publicly backed oil exploration and drilling in the Maldives, stating that this would be among his government's first priorities and that it was "baseless and irrational" to suggest such drilling would harm the tourism sector.
Gasim enjoys strong support in and around his home constituency of Maamagili and among his 6000 employees across the Maldives, and reaches many more through his own private media network.
Though lacking the raw membership numbers of the MDP and Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), with the resources and vessels at Villa Group's disposal, he has been able to campaign extensively and bring large numbers to his rallies.
Analysts believe that Gasim will be a strong contender in the first round and could well make life difficult for Nasheed by forming a coalition with PPM. Nasheed for his part has already rejected partnership offers and is intent on a solo effort.
MP Abdulla Yameen from PPM has also been taking stock of the economy proposing projects announced by previous governments should be postponed for a surplus budget and focus must be diverted towards providing fundamental services such as water, sanitation and waste disposal.
"I believe that political appointees' salaries need to be streamlined in comparison to the President's salary. Based on our estimates we believe that there are expenses from within the government that can be minimized without affecting the general public. By Gods will, we will do it," he told campaigners.
Yameen has taken a strong "law and order" line, appealing to fear over rising crime in the Maldives, campaigning in favor of implementing rather than commuting the death penalty, and pledging harsher prison sentences for crimes such as "obstruction of police duty".
Together with Gasim, he has outlined plans to pursue oil exploration and encourage foreign investment in its extraction, noting that the rising price of the commodity made extraction more feasible.
Yameen has the public endorsement of former President Gayoom and many of his family members active in the current government. As a result the PPM's support base includes many of those who backed Gayoom in the 2008 presidential election a sizeable population across the country which saw Gayoom receive 45.32 percent of the vote in the second round of the 2008 election.
Despite such a tightly contested run-off, the pre-poll environment has been remarkably calm, observers have noted.
Both the Commonwealth observation group and largest monitor Transparency Maldives have expressed satisfaction at the efforts being made to hold a free and fair election.
Transparency Maldives, which will field the largest number of election monitors at Saturday's polls and will conduct the first systematic evaluation in the country's history, met with Xinhua to discuss their observations on the campaigns.
With over 400 volunteers, Transparency Maldives is not only observing the 472 ballot boxes scattered around the Indian Ocean archipelago, they will also coordinate with the 77 international observers and will play a crucial role in ensuring that elections are as democratic as possible.
"We've had 26 long term observers since 15 July in the islands. For the most part the election environment has been peaceful; we have reports of sporadic cases of violence, incidents of vote buying...,but it's different from previous elections because it's less about cash and more in kind, for example, donations to communities, to schools and to youth clubs. So it's less cash and more in kind," said Transparency Maldives Media Coordinator Ahmed Najaaf Saleem.
He pointed out that one reason for the relative peacefulness is because all parties feel that they have a chance to win in either the first or second round so there is less incentive to disrupt the process.
Under pressure to provide credible polls, the Election Commission (EC) has been pulling out all the stops to accommodate residents in 200 inhabited islands, 41 resorts and seven foreign cities.
The EC plans to have at least seven EC officials in each ballot box (booth) in all the islands. In the capital city of Male, home to about a third of the voters, the EC will maintain 103 ballot boxes and over 700 officials will man the booths in all. The officials will constitute the front-line staff to take action in any eventuality.
The EC goes to great lengths to ensure that all eligible voters are able to cast their votes. It will maintain a booth in the resort island of Falhumaafushi for just one voter. In fact, there are at least 22 booths where the voters do not exceed 100 and even prisoners will be allowed to exercise their rights.
First round results are expected to be released early Sunday morning.
Most experts concede that the race is too close to call with a second round all but certain yet the suspense is reaching fever pitch as Maldives opens another chapter of its political journey.