Former President of the Maldives Mohamed Nasheed once described his country "a cross between paradise and paradise." His election in 2008 after 30 years of one-man rule led many to look at the country as a potential showcase for democratization in the Muslim world. But after several years of severe political turmoil, Nasheed lost his job earlier this year and a stable democratic future for the country seems increasingly tenuous. Last week, a Commission of National Inquiry found that his removal from power was constitutional. Nasheed's supporters have now taken to the streets to try to topple the government. Whatever the outcome, it appears that it will take some significant effort at institution-building to restore the shine to the island nation.
Most people think of the Maldives as a high-end tourist destination, with white sand beaches and world-class diving. But the capital Malé, a densely crowded island on which more than one third of the country's 320,000 residents are packed into less than two square kilometers, is far from a paradise. The country has one of the highest rates of heroin addiction in the world, with some estimates suggesting that as many as 80 percent of the population are affected. The UN reports that some 35 percent of women have experienced physical or sexual violence. Salafist Islam is on the rise. The budget deficit is unsustainable and the country may soon run out of money. Add to all this a young population and a stalled political reform, and you have a volatile mix.
For over 30 years, the country was ruled by an authoritarian president, Maumoon Gayoom. But in 2003, public riots followed the torture and death of a young man in prison. This triggered both international pressure and the organization of an internal political opposition. Soon thereafter, the 2004 Tsunami flooded the country, and reconstruction aid was tied to political reform. Gayoom adjusted as best he could but a political reform movement arose around a young and charismatic journalist named Mohamed Nasheed.
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