August 21, 2007 / 10:15 AM / 12 years ago

Maldives Foreign Min quits over reform pace

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Maldives Foreign Minister Ahmed Shaheed said he submitted his resignation on Tuesday, the third top cabinet member to quit this month, accusing conservative elements in the government of stalling on democratising reforms.

Shaheed called Reuters from the capital Male just before handing his resignation letter to President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

“There is a conservative guard within the parliament and cabinet which is resisting the proposals of reformists like me,” Shaheed told Reuters. “So I think the answer is to work outside the system and find a middle ground and provide an alternative.”

It was not immediately clear how the president had reacted.

Shaheed was a key architect of the reform agenda Gayoom pledged in late 2004 to revamp the Maldives’ autocratic power structure in the face of harsh criticism of the government’s rights record.

He will now join fellow reformists — the former justice minister and attorney general who quit earlier this month and call themselves ‘New Maldives’ — to forge an alternative centre ground ahead of the first multi-party presidential elections next year.

Unlike his two colleagues, Shaheed did not accuse Gayoom himself of delaying reforms. But he did say he thought it was time Asia’s longest-serving ruler passed on the baton after 29 years in power.

Political parties were legalised in 2005, but promised reforms — including a new constitution providing for separation of powers, judicial independence and the right of free assembly among others — have yet to materialise in the chain of 1,200 mostly uninhabited islands 800 km off the toe of India.

“I want to applaud Gayoom for risks he has taken by taking forward the sweeping reform agenda and I remain a friend and fan of the reform process,” Shaheed added.

“President Gayoom has a chance to emulate Nelson Mandela to pass the torch on to a new generation, and I hope he does it.”

Gayoom told Reuters on Sunday he planned to run for re-election next year for a seventh and final term to see his reforms through. He aims to complete the reform process within 2-3 years.

With Shaheed’s exit, Gayoom’s directly appointed 13-strong cabinet is now down to nine members.

His resignation comes just days after the Maldives voted to adopt a U.S.-style presidency in a referendum seen as an endorsement of Gayoom’s rule.

It also comes on the eve of a no-confidence vote scheduled in parliament brought against Shaheed by political rivals after he declared it was not effectively protecting the rights of ordinary citizens in a land of 300,000 mostly Sunni Muslims best known as a luxury honeymoon destination.

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