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A false start for Maldivian democracy

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The Maldives is a fledgling democracy that is struggling to get off the ground. Jed Lea-Henry reports.


Military uprising or popular revolt. Presidential coup or voluntary resignation. Regardless of the reality behind the events from just over a week ago, what we know for sure is that the Maldives are firmly in the midst of a democratic crisis. It is a state of affairs that will undoubtedly rumble on until and beyond the next presidential election. What’s more, it was not entirely unexpected.

The archipelago nation’s latest foray into international consciousness could have been predicted as early as 2008. At that time, the Maldives held its first free elections in 30 years, electing democratic activist and former political prisoner Mohammed Nasheed as president with 54 per cent of the vote.

Ever since then, the international community has been expecting (not publicly) violence, political arrests, public dissatisfaction, mutual mistrust and the re-emergence of the previous president Abdul Gayoom.

When western nations espouse and seek to export democracy, it is often done so under the guise of an immediate fix. There seems to be a belief (or at least the hope) that a newly enfranchised population will be the solution to national mismanagement and discontent. Good governance is seen as an instant democratic derivative.

The Maldives should remind us that the old stench of an authoritarian dominated society cannot be washed permanently clean by a democratic tide. What we see is national consciousness beginning to sympathise with the autocrat they fought so hard to dethrone. A mass expression of Stockholm Syndrome.

A democratic transition brings with it a certain turbulence and societal disharmony that authoritarianism would not tolerate. Almost all newly democratic nations undergo such a convoluted period. It is relevant now for the Maldives, and soon to be so for the nations of the Arab spring — because they both are regions that have been, until recently, politically comatose.

Citing such disorder, nations like Russia currently dismiss democratic progress, by claiming that democracy must be limited to the available social conditions. This sort of the statement sets off alarm bells in most political minds, for it is repeated ever too often as an excuse to perpetuate and justify existing power structures. And indeed it should, just as the phrase “western conspiracy” almost universally signals the last and most desperate attempts by dictators to downplay the merits of popular uprisings. Neither claim is valid; both play on base fears in order to suppress human rights and are as transparent in this purpose as could be imagined.



Islam is a major point of contention here. Nations such as the Maldives and many Arab States have been politically and socially crippled by this hindrance for centuries. In the Maldives – with 99 per cent Muslim adherence – when Gayoom and his supporters shout down Nasheed in the streets with anti-Islamic claims, we should see it for what it is. When religion is invoked, it is often to play on people’s base fears and most intransigent ideals. It cannot be challenged on principle for to be ‘pro-God’ trumps all else. This is pandering to the lowest common denominator and it has infected Maldivian politics to its core.

For countries like the Maldives, corruption and cronyism are the not just the consequences of authoritarian rule, but the tools by which it has sustained itself. They become part of the social fabric, and any attempt to purge society of such problems is often seen as an attack on society itself.

Moreover all people are susceptible to manipulation, hubris, disillusionment and caprice. It must be accepted that new democratic rule will not be a quick fix; the embers of collapsed regimes will not die out nor cease to re-seek the power that was stripped from them. The newly elected leaders might suffer from similar fallible constitutions to those that were deposed and a newly enfranchised population may be hypersensitive to dissatisfaction and prone to over-reaction.

To paraphrase Albert Camus in The Plague:

‘The streets may look clean, the city has new life, the disease has disappeared from society but the rats are still in the sewers, waiting to return’.


Or Perhaps Nasheed said it best himself “it can take years to stamp out the lingering remnants of past regimes”. Yet, in attempting to do so, he has been painted with the same brush as Gayoom.

Nasheed has been accused by the new president (his former deputy) Mohammed Waheed Hassan of adopting a “centralised dictatorial approach” to governing the island and, now deposed from power, of attempting to destabilise the nation with unrealistic election demands and threats of continuing protests in the streets of Male.



Indeed the climax leading to Nasheed’s fall from power was his exceeding constitutional power in ordering the arrest of a high ranking Criminal Court Judge for politically subversive rulings. However there is a certain degree of constitutional confusion relating to the actions on both sides of politics. Yet from an individual who has in the past been a champion of human rights and democratic freedom, Nasheed has eased seamlessly into the role of authoritarian leader.

So Mohammed Nasheed finds himself in the unfamiliar position of having his character publicly questioned. And perhaps for good reason, Nasheed for all his assumed best intentions has spent the vast majority of his adult life in, or seeking, the highest attainable power. And when seen in this light, Nasheed is unable to be differentiated from his predecessor.

Yet despite how tainted either individual may be, what is a given is that both Nasheed and Gayoom will challenge for the next presidential election, scheduled for October 2013. And with the backing of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) respectively, they are currently the only two viable candidates. Power is just too addictive, especially when it does not have adequate constitutional safeguards.

The Maldives and all fledgling democracies need their Vaclav Havel’s. In the absence of a fully formed civil society, such nations need individuals who do not seek great power, but rather accept it reluctantly through lack of a better option.

The Maldives needs a popularist independent candidate, not a career politician; an altruistically motivated, incorruptible, individual who runs for the national good rather than personal satisfaction. Have no doubt that there are Maldivians who resemble this ideal — they exist in all societies. Whether they possess the courage to fight for a more peaceful democratic future remains to be seen.

The future of the Maldivian political landscape will be stained by protests, uprisings and attempted coups. Yet to say that a nation is not ready for democratic rule is an open affront to civilised thought, it unacceptably clashes with the innate reason and moral compass to which we are all bound.  We must never accept that democracy is unachievable, just that in its infancy we cannot expect maturity.

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