THE first free election in the history of the Maldives might or might not topple Asia's longest-serving dictator, but it has already thrust Australian political strategist James McGrath back into the spotlight, a position he finds less than comfortable.
"For somebody who really likes to avoid attention and work behind the scenes, I suppose I've been having a pretty bad run," McGrath said by telephone yesterday after becoming the personal target of a withering publicity campaign launched by Maldives President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.
Just before the start of Thursday's presidential voting, Gayoom, who won six previous five-year terms thanks to electoral rules that made him the only candidate, portrayed the 34-year-old Queenslander as a corrupt - and corrupting - outsider, masterminding the main opposition campaign.
A barrage of press conferences, briefings and even cartoons released by the President's team called McGrath a malicious and highly paid outsider and said he was a Christian missionary, trying to undermine the country's Muslim faith.
Democracy campaigners are now concerned that McGrath, who has been working in the Maldives for 12 weeks as an unpaid adviser to former political prisoner turned presidential candidate Mohamed Nasheed, may be deported before a final run-off election on October 29, and they have appointed minders to ensure there are no physical attacks on the Australian.
It is not the first unhappy exposure to public attention for McGrath, who shares the belief of his mentor and fellow conservative Lynton Crosby that political advisers are effective only when they "fly below the radar".
After starting his political career working for the South Australian Liberal government in 2001, McGrath travelled to Britain on a working holiday visa a year later and worked his way up in Conservative machine politics to become the chief political adviser to new London Mayor Boris Johnson in May.
But his days of invisibility ended just a month later, when Johnson sacked him for saying in a private meeting that Londoners of Caribbean descent were free to leave if they did not like Johnson's administration.
Johnson rejected claims that McGrath's comment was racist, but said he still had to go because Johnson did not want his administration to be tainted by such accusations.
After four weeks' holiday, McGrath went on what was supposed to be a 10-day assignment in the Maldives as "an interesting political experience" to keep him busy while he pondered his future.
The British Conservative Party used a government grant to fund his airfare and hotel costs for nine days as a show of support for the new opposition party, the Maldives Democratic Party, and when that time expired, the local party asked him to stay on.
Travelling by boat and small planes to about a third of the nation's 21 groups of islands, McGrath taught MDP campaigners and party leaders how to canvass and develop strategy.
"I found it quite humbling to be attending meetings with party leaders and realising I was the only one in the room who hadn't been beaten or arrested or exiled or tortured for my beliefs," McGrath said.
"When my colleagues start comparing scars and counting their broken bones, there's not much I can say to join in."
Street protests and foreign government pressure prompted Gayoom, 71, to allow multiple-candidate elections for president.
McGrath said the "passion that ordinary people are showing over being allowed to actually vote for an opposition candidate for the first time has been really exciting. From a total population of about 300,000, the MDP has got 30,000 members. You don't get that sort of commitment in Australian or British politics".
During his 30 years in power, Gayoom used top-end tourism to help make the Maldives the richest country in South Asia. It has an average annual income of $7620, but poverty is still widespread and the MDP has campaigned for better health services, housing and transport, cheaper food and action against drugs.
As the MDP's campaign gathered pace, the ruling party turned its fire on McGrath, claiming he was trying to spread Christianity and had been promised he could have his own island if he helped Nasheed become president.
Presidential spokesman Mohamed Hussein Shareef claimed McGrath had "links to a movement to change the Maldives into a multi-religious society".
McGrath described the claims as worrying.
"They held three press conferences in 36 hours to say all this stuff and it was all rubbish, but it could be damaging, especially the Christian missionary stuff. This is a very conservative and very Muslim society, and people don't want to hear that some foreigner is running around trying to introduce another religion."
Thursday's first round of voting gave the President 40.6per cent of the vote and Nasheed 25.1per cent. Four other opposition candidates were eliminated from the final run-off.
The President's backers argued that he was already within striking distance of a majority after the first poll, but the MDP said almost 60per cent of the voters had opted for change.
Nasheed claimed all four eliminated candidates had pledged to support him in the run-off.
"Until then, I will just be trying to keep working and not get kicked out of the country," McGrath said.
Aussie James McGrath targeted in Maldives poll
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Title: Aussie James McGrath targeted in Maldives poll
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