Capital: Male
Population: 315,000

Political Rights Score: 3 *
Civil Liberties Score: 4 *
Status: Partly Free

Ratings Change

The Maldives' political rights rating improved from 4 to 3 due to largely fair and competitive legislative elections held in May 2009.


Building on a historic transfer of power after the 2008 presidential election, the Maldives continued its democratic opening in 2009 with May legislative elections that were considered to be largely free and fair. A strong showing by former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom's Maldivian People's Party ensured that the new parliament would remain balanced by competing political factions, but raised questions about Mohamed Nasheed's administration's ability to implement its ambitious reform agenda. The political transition was accompanied by a significantly improved environment for freedoms of expression and association, but corruption, religious restrictions, and abysmal prison conditions remained serious problems.

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 went on to serve six five-year terms. He won and 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. In May 2004, voters elected a People's Special Majlis (PSM) – composed of the ordinary 50-seat People's Majlis (parliament), another 50 members elected or appointed specifically to the PSM, and the cabinet – that was tasked with amending the constitution. 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.

As the reform process dragged on, political tensions remained high, and Gayoom was attacked in a failed assassination attempt in January 2008. The PSM approved the final set of constitutional amendments in June of that year. 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 two rounds 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 went on to victory in the runoff with 54 percent. Nearly 87 percent of registered voters turned out for the second round.

The Nasheed administration's immediate priorities were anticorruption measures, democratization, government decentralization, and press freedom. In line with the third objective, the government in 2009abolished the Atolls Ministry, appointed seven provincial state ministers, and published a draft decentralization bill for discussion. 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 year's end.

In the May 2009 parliamentary elections, Gayoom's Maldivian People's Party (DRP) won 28 of 77 seats, while the MDP won 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, with a turnout of 79 percent. The DRP's strong showing – and the election of DRP member Abdullah Shahid and PA member Ahmed Nazim as speaker and deputy speaker, respectively, of the new Majlis – raised questions about the ability of the government to push through its ambitious reform agenda.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

The Republic of Maldives is an electoral democracy. The first democratic presidential election in 2008 was deemed relatively free and fair, although observers reported flaws including some preelection violence, a compressed timeframe, and voter registration problems. The interim election commission established prior to the vote was considered generally professional, transparent, and impartial. Parliamentary elections held in May 2009 were also judged to be largely credible despite minor problems related to the compilation of the voters' list as well as some intimidation and other irregularities.

Under the new constitution, the president is directly elected for up to two five-year terms. The Parliamentary Constituencies Act, passed in February 2009, increased the size of the unicameral People's Majlis to 77 seats, with all 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, a dozen have registered. The space for opposition parties to mobilize expanded significantly in the past few years, although interparty rivalries, which sometimes flare into violence, remain a concern.

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. A new Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), whose members are appointed by the president and approved by a parliamentary majority, was set up in October 2008. As of September 2009 it had opened 90 cases, many involving Gayoom and members of his administration. In addition, a presidential commission on corruption was formed in May to investigate allegations against the former government. The DRP denounced the move as politically motivated and of questionable legality. In September, President Mohamed Nasheed announced that he was seeking help from the World Bank to recover around $2 billion in embezzled funds. The Maldives was ranked 130out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index. Transparency International set up a branch in the Maldives in February.

The new constitution guarantees freedoms of expression and the press, but it places limits on speech deemed "contrary to the tenets of Islam." A defamation case brought against a former magazine editor in June 2009 prompted calls for the offense to be decriminalized, and the parliament passed legislation to that effect in November.Private print media have expanded, though some publications are still owned by Gayoom allies, and the sector's coverage presents a diversity of viewpoints. The number of private radio stations has also increased, and the country's first private television channels began operating in July and September 2008, while several others were preparing to open. However, these outlets were authorized through individual agreements with the government rather than new broadcasting legislation, limiting their legal protection. Reforms at state-run Television and Radio Maldives led to somewhat more balanced election coverage, but bias persisted, and planned legislation to transform the public broadcaster stalled during the year. Journalists remain subject to some harassment; a spate of cases in mid-2009 included separate attacks by political activists on a reporter for TV Maldives and an editor at the daily Haveeru in July. Oppositionist websites remained unblocked, but the Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MIA) announced in 2008 that Christian websites would be blocked, arguing that they could negatively affect belief in Islam, and a number of websites were blocked by the Telecommunication Authority at the MIA's request during 2009.

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. Under Nasheed, the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs has been transformed into a ministry with the sole authority to grant licenses to preachers; a number of members of the Islamist Adhaalath Party were appointed to senior positions in the ministry. In January 2009, Forum 18 reported that a man was prosecuted for denying both the existence of Allah and Muhammad's status as a prophet, but recanted before the judge. Non-Muslim foreigners, including approximately 70,000 guest workers on long-term visas, are only allowed to practice their religions in private, which is difficult in practice. There were no reported limitations on academic freedom, but many scholars self-censor. Maldivians are now palpably freer to discuss politically sensitive issues in public places.

The new constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, and a number of peaceful demonstrations were held during the year, but police sometimes disperse peaceful protesters with excessive force. In March 2009, additional members were appointed to the three-year-old Police Integrity Commission (PIC), which had largely been inactive under Gayoom. In October, the PIC launched an investigation into police conduct during a protest at which officers clashed with demonstrators and temporarily detained 20. There were no reports in 2009 of harassment of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), whose numbers grew during the year.

The new constitution and the Employment Act, which took effect in 2008, provide for a minimum wage and grant workers the rights to form trade unions and strike, all of which had been excluded from the 1998 constitution. In response to a series of strikes, the country's first labor tribunal was established in December 2008 to enforce the Employment Act. In May 2009, Maldives joined the International Labour Organization. Foreign workers occasionally have trouble collecting wages from their employers.

The new constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and judges were sworn into the first Supreme Court and final court of appeals in September 2008. By the end of that year, courts were showing signs of increased independence from the executive. In July 2009, Nasheed established the Judicial Services Commission to further separate the two branches, although concerns remain about the composition of the commission. 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 flogging and internal exile continue to be carried out. A revised penal code was under debate in the Majlis during 2009, but it had not been amended by year's end.

The new constitution bans arbitrary arrest, torture, and prolonged detention without adequate judicial review. It also requires compensation for those detained without legal justification. The Nasheed administration has initiated efforts to reform and retrain the police, and has established an eight-member parole board to recommend sentence reductions for unjustly detained inmates. However, progress on improving prison conditions has been slow, and abuses continue to take place. In October 2009, prisoners at Maafushi Jail rioted and set fires to protest deplorable conditions.

Women, who enjoy a 98 percent literacy rate, are increasingly entering the civil service and receiving pay equal to that of men, though traditional norms still limit opportunities for many women. Women hold few senior positions in the government, but there are five female members of parliament, and Nasheed appointed women to the posts of attorney general, minister of health and family, and deputy minister of education. Unlike the old charter, the new constitution allows a woman to become president. International human rights groups have urged reform of severe legal punishments that primarily affect women; in July 2009, Amnesty International noted that since 2006, nearly 200 people, the vast majority of them women, had been sentenced to flogging for extramarital sex.

*Countries are ranked on a scale of 1-7, with 1 representing the highest level of freedom and 7 representing the lowest level of freedom.

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