The formation of the Maldives as a political entity is generally dated from the period of conversion to Islam in the 1100s. This makes the Maldives one of the oldest surviving small states in the world. Unlike most other countries in the region, the Maldives was not subject to the overt domination of foreign powers. This is most likely due to the problems of navigating the sea around and within the islands as, without a high level of knowledge of the dangers of the reefs and shallow lagoons, ships would often be smashed or grounded. The Portuguese managed to rule the Maldives for a period of 17 years in the mid-1500s. They were soon thwarted in their dominance by a guerrilla war assisted by the Rajah of Cannanore in what is now India. Various sultans then ruled the Maldives unhindered, until Sultan Muhammad Muenuddin entered into an agreement with the British in 1887. The British, whose empire extended throughout South Asia, made the Maldives a British protectorate in return for the payment of tribute.
After a gradual rise in its level of sovereignty, the Maldives became fully independent of Britain on 26 July 1965. Three years after, a national referendum saw 80 percent of votes cast call for the abolition of the hereditary sultanate in favor of a republic, although the country's status as an Islamic state remained. This included civil law being subject to Sharia (Islamic law) which remained in place by mid-2001. Although the executive position of sultan was abolished, the office of the president wields similarly large powers. (The president is required to be a male Sunni Muslim.) The president is the head of state, the supreme authority defending the national faith of Islam, the chief executive, and commander-in-chief of the military. And not only does he have the power to appoint the prime minister and cabinet of ministers, but he can dismiss them too. Amir Ibrahim Nasir, formerly the prime minister under the sultan, was elected president in 1968. Nasir ruled until the 1978 elections, when he cited poor health and did not stand for office. He instead left for Singapore after the new president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, initiated investigations into Nasir's alleged misappropriation of government revenues.
President Gayoom was re-elected in 1998 for a fifth consecutive 5-year term with the support of 90.9 percent of votes cast. In each election, he ran unopposed— presidential candidates are selected by the Citizens' Majlis (parliament) and posed to the people in a simple "for" or "against" referendum. The Majlis itself consists of 48 members, 8 of whom are selected by the president, while voters in the Maldives' 20 administrative atoll districts elect the rest (2 members per district). In November 1988, Tamil mercenaries from Sri Lanka, in collusion with some Maldivian nationals, attempted to overthrow the government. However, President Gayoom appealed to India for military assistance, which swiftly foiled the rebels.
The Maldives electoral system has received criticism for being limited, unfair, and unrepresentative. For example, Freedom House (the U.S. political liberties and civil rights advocacy group) classified the Maldives in 2000 as "Not Free." Amnesty International (a London-based human rights organization) has reported the detention of a number of politically motivated prisoners. Gayoom himself is often cited as authoritarian. In a country profile on the Maldives, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) suggested that Gayoom "has been accused of heading a small heredity elite which holds decisive power and which uses intimidation to discourage political activity." However, the government addresses these criticisms by maintaining that this limited style of democracy provides a stable and consistent form of rule that also acts to protect the basic tenets of the nation's Muslim faith. Maldives' brand of Islam is among the most emancipated of current Islamic states. This is exemplified by the Maldives' comparatively high rating in the Gender-related Development Index.
The Maldives government receives the majority of its revenues through direct taxation and the earnings of state-owned enterprise and property. There is no income tax . Import duties provided 63 percent of government tax revenues in 1997, while various taxes on the lucrative tourism sector accounted for 27 percent of tax revenues. Key non-tax revenue sources are government-owned property, such as resort islands which are leased to tour operators, and the profits from public enterprise, such as the regular collection of fisheries produce, which provided 46 percent of total government revenues in 1997.