MALE, Maldives – The Maldives president said Friday he can't be unseated through protests, speaking Friday hours after demonstrators made new calls for his resignation over soaring prices they blame on his economic reforms.
President Mohamed Nasheed addressed a support rally in the capital, Male, assuring Maldivians the hardships are only temporary but his International Monetary Fund-backed reforms are beneficial in the long term.
"If you want power face me in 2013 presidential elections," he said in an apparent challenge to former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom's Dhivehi Raithunge Party. He vowed not to be ruffled by protests and promised to continue his reforms.
Cheering supporters chanted slogans against the opposition some calling for Gayoom's arrest for alleged corruption and human rights violations during his 30-year autocratic rule that ended with Nasheed's victory in the country's first democratic election in 2008.
"Clean the nation of corrupt politicians," read some placards carried by the government supporters. "Give infant democracy a chance."
However, the rally was in sharp contrast with an opposition-led protest Friday afternoon when police blocked hundreds of protesters from rallying in a central plaza, arresting several people, despite there being no violence.
However, the government supporters participated in their rally unhindered with virtually no police presence highlighting the discrepancies that still exist in the new democracy.
Protesters have taken to the streets for six consecutive nights and for a daytime protest after Friday prayers over inflation and alleged mismanagement by the government. Police dispersed them every night, blaming violence.
After Friday prayers, opposition protesters turned up at this small Muslim nation's Republican Square demanding that Nasheed resign, saying his reforms have sent commodity prices sky high.
Police quickly pushed the protesters out of the square, where authorities had banned entry, saying it is a high security area. People were handcuffed and taken away in police vehicles, some who resisted arrest were dragged away. It was not immediately clear how many people were arrested.
The protesters moved briefly to another location and vowed to regroup later Friday evening for a seventh night of demonstrations.
They are angry over the government's decision to allow the local currency rufiyaa to float against the U.S dollar as part of the IMF proposals. As a result, they say, the rufiyaa has dropped in value resulting in high prices for goods, most of which are imported to the islands.
Foreign Minister Ahmed Naseem told reporters in Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo, on Friday that the opposition protests are harming the tourism-based economy by scaring away potential visitors.
"Today, there is a planned big demonstration, which may go quite nasty," he said hours before the protests began. "So, police have taken appropriate action to prevent any damage to public property, damage to people and to keep order in the country."
The government says the reforms are necessary to bridge the country's budget deficit which stands at 16 percent of the $1.4 billion economy.
Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago of 1,200 islets, has a population of around 300,000.