Last Updated: Tue Nov 02, 2010 12:25 pm (KSA) 09:25 am (GMT)

Muslim Maldives gets democratic constitution

President Gayoom is Asia's longest-serving leader (File)
President Gayoom is Asia's longest-serving leader (File)

The Maldives President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom ratified the country's new constitution on Thursday, aiming to pursue a "modern, multi-party, democratic system" and giving more powers to the judiciary and legislature.

New to the Maldives government, these measures and others in the document aim to bring full democracy to the Sunni Muslim nation of 300,000 people scattered across 1,200 mostly uninhabited islands 500km from India.

Opposition parties welcomed the new constitution, but worried about the implementation stage.

The new constitution, developed over the past four years, includes a judiciary run by an independent commission, and independent commissions to oversee elections and fight corruption.

It reduces the executive powers vested under the president and strengthens the parliament, which would be chosen through an electoral system giving each 5,000 people one member, replacing a less representative system that included some seats appointed by the president.

"We are not doing this as an illusion ... but for the benefit of the country," President Gayoom said soon after announcing official ratification of the new constitution. "The real work is bringing the constitution into effect. Democracy can bind everyone together even if we are different from one another."

Authoritarian rule

Gayoom, Asia's longest-serving leader, has held the reins of the archipelago -- a major tourist destination -- since 1978. He first pledged the reforms to the earlier constitution following a crackdown on mass protests in 2003, and criticism over his government's human rights record.

The country's constitution was last revised in 1998, putting the president at the head of all government bodies.

"The new constitution says we can get freedoms, but we don't feel it now. Maybe electing a new president will give us the freedoms in reality," said Ibrahim, a store cashier, who like others interviewed gave only one name.

Gayoom is expected to contest in the country's first multi-party presidential elections, due to be held by Oct. 10, after six terms in which he was nominated by parliament with the public given the chance to approve or disapprove him.

"It lays the groundwork for a new era providing, of course, the constitution is implemented in the spirit it (is) intended to be," Ahamed Shaheed, former foreign minister of Gayoom's government last year on slow pace of constitutional reforms and now a member of opposition New Maldives Movement, told Reuters.

"But we still want to see how it is implemented, because we do need to see the composition of the election commission and supreme court."

The Home Ministry said Gayoom had pardoned 13 prisoners on Wednesday night, a day before he lost his pardoning powers under the new constitution, including a pardon for relative jailed on terror charges in the 2003 unrest.

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