Comment: What led to democratisation of the Maldives?

This article was first published on Dhivehi Sitee. Republished with permission.

The first multi-party Presidential election of 2008 in the Maldives marked an end to the 30-year authoritarian regime of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and saw the installation of a democratic government. However, since the coup in 2012, Maldives is on a rocky road in its democratisation process.

Taking the advice of a close friend of mine who stated that, “if several different people don’t write about the significant events changing their societies, romanticization of, and myths around, those events creep in, and that is one way unreal heroes and unreal villains are born”, I have attempted to write some of my understanding of the democratisation process in the Maldives. As such, in an earlier piece, I have explored how democratisation occurred in the Maldives.

The aim of this piece is to identify the major factors that could explain why democratisation occurs in the first place. Scholars in the past have developed various theories that explain the democratisation of a country. These include the deepening legitimacy issues of authoritarian systems due to the wider acceptance of democratic values, rapid economic growth, and changing policies of international actors towards democracy. I argue that modernisation and international pressure for democratic reforms were the major factors that led to democratisation in the Maldives and assess here how both factors contributed to democratisation in the Maldives.

Modernisation factor

The positive correlation between modernisation and democracy is well established within political science literature. Modernisation theory is the belief that economic development directly leads to positive social and political changes. As one of the first proponents of this theory, Seymour Martin Lipset argues that economic development leads to modernisation that encompasses industrialisation, higher average income, urbanisation and better education. All these factors produce profound social transformation that together leads to democratisation.

Since Gayoom came to power, Maldives has achieved significant economic growth and hence significant transformations in the society. The social transformations in the Maldives became an important factor leading to democratic reforms. In particular, three aspects of modernisation – increased average income, urbanisation and better education – have all facilitated the growth of democratic aspirations within the Maldivian society. These three factors are explored further below.

Average Income

When Gayoom came to power in 1978, Maldives was regarded as one of the poorest 25 countries and hence included in the UN list of the Least Developed Countries (LDC). However, in 1997, Maldives graduated from the list of LDCs because of the development progress. This development was driven by the growth of high-end tourism in the country. The Maldives’ GDP grew from US $25 million in 1978 to US $700 million in 2008. Furthermore, given the small population, Maldives has the highest per capita income in South Asia.

We therefore could infer that during President Gayoom’s authoritarian regime, average income has grown. Larry Diamond, one of the leading scholars in democracy studies, argues that “as people acquire more income and information, they become more politically aware and confident, more inclined to participate in politics, to think for themselves, and thus to break free of traditional patron-client ties”. Similarly, in the context of Maldives, the increase in average income resulted in more citizens being politically aware and active. This is particularly evident in more urbanised islands such as Male’, the capital of Maldives.


The degree of urbanisation, according to Lipset, has a strong correlation with democracy. Furthermore, Diamond argues that as people move to cities from rural areas, they adhere to new political attitudes and beliefs largely due to the increased education levels and global communication. Being the capital city and centre of all government activities, Male’ has assumed the character of a ‘metropole’. Many citizens from outer islands have moved to Male’ to attain better services including education, employment and healthcare. The year 2000 census shows a population of 74,069 people in Male’ and was the only island with more than 10,000 inhabitant.

Urbanisation had significantly transformed the society and led to more politically active citizens. An assessment conducted by the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) found that ‘the level of political awareness and sophistication’ was significantly higher in Male’ compared to other islands. These factors resulted in an increasing number of citizens questioning the legitimacy of the authoritarian regime and expressing the preference for a democratic regime as the most viable political system. As a result, the struggle for democratic reforms first started in the capital and the opposition garnered strong support in Male’.


Education, as another aspect of modernisation, is an important factor in the Maldives’ democratisation. There is a voluminous literature on the relationship between education and the support for democracy. For instance, Lipset argues that a better-educated population in a country increases the chances for democracy in that country. Education affects the valuation of individuals’ beliefs and values, resulting in a greater acceptance of democratic values. A recent survey conducted in South Asia also found formal education to be a strong factor determining the level of support for democracy.

The same applied in the Maldives. During Gayoom’s regime, a significant number of Maldivians had the opportunity to obtain higher education overseas, giving them greater exposure to the outside world. A significant number of elites within the opposition came to value democracy as a result of such education and exposure. For instance, President Mohamed Nasheed, who was elected in 2008, played a vital role in democratisation in Maldives, acting as the main opposition leader during President Gayoom’s regime. President Nasheed was educated in the UK and had a greater exposure to a practicing democracy.

International factor

International pressure on Gayoom’s authoritarian regime also played a significant role in the democratisation of Maldives. Two important aspects – economy and security – makes the Maldives a weak state susceptible to international pressure. As far as the economy is concerned, Maldives has very limited means (mainly tourism and fish export) of earning foreign currency and is also aid-dependent.

Professor Tom Ginsburg from the University of Chicago Law School argues that, in terms of security, Maldives does not have the capability to guard its maritime borders. As a result, the country is highly dependent on the international actors and these actors who stronlyg influence on domestic issues. Former Foreign Minister Dr. Ahmed Shaheed argues that, President Gayoom’s regime proved sensitive to international pressure and in many cases led to a change of course towards democratic reforms.

The international community particularly stood against the arbitrary arrest of opposition politicians, widespread human rights abuses and torture in prisons. Several Amnesty International reports helped awaken the international community about the repressive tendencies of President Gayoom’s regime. For instance, the August 2004 crackdown that resulted in arrest of many opposition figures attracted strong criticism from countries such as the United States, Britain, India and Sri Lanka. Moreover, Members of European Parliament called to an end to all non-humanitarian aid as well as imposing travel ban to Maldives. As a result, President Gayoom soon faced isolation from the international community.

However, this isolation came to an end with the 2004 tsunami that had significant negative impacts on the economy, especially the tourism industry. The nation, therefore, was in a great need of humanitarian assistance. Professor Ginsburg argues that the 2004 tsunami substantially facilitated opening up the nation to international engagement. Furthermore, it gave international donors the leverage they needed to apply additional pressure on the autocratic regime to pursue and speed-up democratic reforms. As a country highly dependent on the international community in terms of foreign aid, tourism and good standing with the outside world, the pressure from external actors such as Amnesty International and the European Union (EU) became too much for the President Gayoom’s regime. As a result, the regime did bring about several democratic reforms.

In sum, democratic reforms in the Maldives resulted from two major factors. Firstly, modernisation facilitated the positive social transformations that eventually produced democracy in the Maldives. Secondly, international pressure for democratic reforms also played a significant role in democratisation in the Maldives. As a country that is highly dependent on international community, Maldives is susceptible to international pressure. The efforts from international actors such as EU in many cases have compelled the regime to allow democratic reforms in the Maldives.

Apart from the factors discussed in this essay, there are also other reasons that led to democratisation in the Maldives. For instance, the growing economic and social inequality, the oppressiveness of Gayoom’s regime, increased civil society participation, and the restricted practice of Islam (eg: restriction on preaching by religious scholars) are also likely to have played significant roles in the democratisation of Maldives.

Ahmed Hamdhan is a third-year Bachelor of Arts (Policy Studies and Political Science) and a student at the Australian National University.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]


Comment: Revisiting the Maldives’ transition to democracy

This article was first published on Dhivehi Sitee. Republished with permission.

The first multiparty presidential election of 2008 in Maldives saw an end to the 30-year dictatorship of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and the adoption of a modern democracy for the first time in the Maldives. Nevertheless, as in many other nascent democracies, there is real doubt whether Maldives can sustain its democracy in its fullest sense, especially after the recent coup that ousted the first democratically elected president in February 2012.

Some scholars argue that the mode of democratic transition a country experiences proves to be a critical factor in determining the country’s democratic future. Hence, an analysis of the mode of democratic transition that occurred in Maldives may help in predicting whether democracy could be sustained in future.

Political scientist Samuel Huntington argues that the process of democratisation could be determined based on ‘the relative importance of governing and the opposition groups as the sources of democratisation’.

He identifies three broader modes of democratisation; (1) ‘transformation’ (from above) occurs when the regime itself takes initiative in bringing democracy; (2) ‘replacement’ (from below) occurs when opposition groups take the initiative and replace the regime by bringing democracy; and (3) ‘transplacement’ (through bargain) occurs when both government and opposition work together to bring about democracy.

My aim here is to analyse the process of democratisation in Maldives in terms of the theories offered by Huntington, and identify the modes of democratic transition that occurred in Maldives.

This in turn may help predict the future sustenance of democracy in Maldives. I will argue that no one particular mode of democratisation occurred in Maldives as none of them materialised fully. However, various efforts from the current opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), together with the leadership of Mohamed Nasheed, have contributed significantly to the process and facilitated negotiations with the regime leading to democratisation.

To achieve the stated-aim, I will discuss the major events that contributed to the democratisation process in Maldives by relating them to the modes of transition outlined above.

The initial period of democratic struggle – a period of near ‘replacement’

The initial period of the struggle for democracy in Maldives depicts characteristics of ‘replacement’ where citizens started to challenge the regime through various means and made attempts to overthrow the autocratic government. The first serious challenge to dictator Gayoom was in 1988, with a failed coup attempt carried out by Sri Lankan Tamil mercenaries financed by wealthy Maldivians. A year after the attempted coup, the election of western-educated young politicians to the parliament in 1989 resulted in increased pressure for democratic reforms.

However, many of them and their family members faced significant threats from the regime and some of them were imprisoned for various politically motivated charges[3]. The regime continued to suppress major opposition figures through arbitrary arrests. In 2001, Mohamed Nasheed – both a Member of Parliament and a major opposition figure – was arrested and imprisoned for two and half years. The same year, the opposition MDP made their first attempt to formally register themselves as a political party. The Home Ministry, mandated to register civic organisations, sent the petition to parliament where it was overwhelmingly rejected.

On September 20, 2003, civil unrest broke out in the capital Male’ sparked by the death of prison inmate Hassan Evan Naseem. Evan was tortured to death by security forces during an interrogation. News of his death led to riots in the prison and a subsequent shootout by the police that killed three more inmates and injured many others. The news spread throughout Maldives, becoming the major trigger for many to publicly demand democratic reforms.

Since the September unrests, Gayoom came under tremendous pressure from both domestic and international actors that compelled him to announce democratic reforms. On June 2004, during an informal meeting, Gayoom announced his proposed changes to the Constitution including two term limits for the president, direct election of the president, measures to increase separation of powers and removing the gender bar for political participation. Moreover, he urged citizens to publicly debate his proposals. The opposition were still very sceptical about Gayoom’s real intentions and raised doubts about whether he could bring about concrete reforms.

However, the reform announcement itself facilitated the opposition to organise more activities publicly. Matt Mulberry from the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, argues that the reforms announced by Gayoom ‘technically gave citizens freedom of speech and freedom of assembly’. As a result, some citizens organised a series of “minivan debates” (‘minivan’ means ‘independent’ in Dhivehi) where they discussed the political issues facing the country. Unsurprisingly, the government sent police to disrupt these debates, eventually declaring them illegal.

Despite these repressive actions, the opposition organised a huge protest on August 12-13, 2004 to mark the death of Evan Naseem and demanded reforms, including the release of political prisoners. A record number of citizens took part in the protest which became the largest political gathering ever in the history of Maldives at that time.

The crackdown that followed the protest led to the arrest of hundreds of activists and injured many protesters. As a result, violence erupted in capital Male’ and other parts of the country. Despite the oppressed media, news of the regime’s repressive actions attracted the attention of many international actors. By then, President Gayoom faced immense pressure from the UK, US, India and Sri Lanka to bring about political reforms.

From ‘replacement’ to ‘transplacement’ – a period of joint action

The mounting international pressure and political instability in Maldives led to a new phase in the democratisation process as the regime agreed to have serious negotiations with the opposition. The willingness of joint action from both the regime and the opposition led to a period of ‘transplacement’ in the democratisation process. The regime agreed to sit with the opposition for the first time in the UK.

During the negotiations, the regime agreed to more reforms including formation of independent oversight bodies such as the Police Integrity Commission and the Judicial Services Commission. Moreover, informal talks between reformers within the regime and the opposition were held in Sri Lanka facilitated by the British High Commissioner.

However, the lack of true commitments from the regime led the opposition to realise that international pressure alone would not help bring down the autocratic leadership. Hence, they increased their efforts in organising more protests, speeches and sit-ins. As a result of the mounting support for the opposition’s cause, reformers within the government increased their efforts in pressuring Gayoom to implement urgent reforms.

The pressure from a few reformers within the government and the opposition MDP led to a period of ‘transformation’ where the regime was compelled to take reform actions. In April 2005, the then Attorney General Dr Hassan Saeed overturned his predecessor’s decision by issuing a formal legal opinion to allow the registration of political parties. In June 2005, the parliament unanimously voted in favour of a resolution to allow multi-party democracy for the first time in Maldives. The MDP – the main opposition party – led by Mohamed Nasheed was formally registered, along with several other political parties representing different views. In March 2006, the regime published a roadmap that ‘included 31 proposals for revision of the Constitution, a series of time-bound commitments on human rights, and proposals to build institutions and mobilise civil society’.

However, many still doubted whether the regime was committed to real reforms. Ahmed Shaheed (then Foreign Minister) later argued that, through the reform agenda, Gayoom was seeking to get rehabilitated and thereby stabilise his presidency. He argued that, by 2007, Gayoom had achieved his aim by gaining widespread domestic support and getting rehabilitated.

However, new cracks that significantly weakened the regime emerged as those most closely associated with the reform agenda left the government. On 5th August 2007, both Dr Hassan Saeed and Mohamed Jameel (Justice Minister) resigned from their posts. They claimed that working outside Gayoom’s regime was the only option to advance their reform agenda. Later on the same month, Ahmed Shaheed resigned from the post of Foreign Minister, accusing the government of stalling democratic reforms. These developments saw more public support for the opposition reform movement. After several disagreements with the Special Majlis (Special Parliament), Gayoom ratified the new Constitution in August 2008, allowing key democratic reforms and paving way for the first multi-party presidential election in October that year.

Democracy sustainable?

As evident from the discussion above, three modes of democratisation have contributed to the democratisation process in Maldives, though characteristics of ‘transformation’ are very little. Interestingly, there appears to be a correlation between each mode as the occurrence of one type led to the other. This observation therefore contradicts Huntington’s view that the three modes of democratisation are alternatives to one another.

However, it is important to note the significant role played by the opposition MDP, especially Mohamed Nasheed as the leader who never took a step back in his quest to bring democracy to Maldives. It is clear that MDP played the most critical role in the process of democratisation. I have previously argued that Gayoom is the major obstacle to sustaining democracy and the threat is heightened more than ever with his current political activeness.

Reflecting on the process of democratisation and the strong influence of Gayoom on many institutions till today, I still doubt sustenance of democracy in the Maldives. Similar to the 2008 election, this year’s election is very much a choice between democracy and autocracy.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]


Comment: Gayoom and his legacy – the major obstacle to consolidating Maldives democracy

This article was first published on Dhivehi Sitee. Republished with permission.

The Maldives’ first multi-party presidential elections of 2008 ended Gayoom’s thirty year dictatorship and adopted democratic rule.

But, like many other nascent democracies, the threat exists that Maldives may not be able to sustain its democracy in its fullest sense.

This is especially true after the coup orchestrated by the Maldivian security forces that ousted the first democratically elected President in February 2012. Added to this is the political activeness of dictator Gayoom, which in itself tends to heighten the prospect of Maldives falling back to a dictatorship.

As we head to the second democratic election in Maldives history, I want to ask: will a popular election alone help foster democracy in Maldives? Moreover, how could we prevent a full-blown authoritarian reversal with power back in the hands of Gayoom?

Gayoom’s continuing influence over Maldivian politics cannot be denied. This is not a unique experience for nascent democracies.

Research has established that legacies of authoritarianism from which democracies emerge put more direct pressure on democracies than cultural and economic factors[i].

This kind of pressure from Gayoom’s legacy the on Maldives’ efforts towards democratic transition has manifested itself in different ways. Take, for instance, the country’s political institutions.

During three years of democracy, attempts by Nasheed’s government to implement reforms needed for the consolidation of democracy were met with ever increasing obstructions from Gayoom loyalists within various institutions.

Firstly, the effort to create an independent judiciary (without which a modern democracy cannot function) has been entirely undermined by judges loyal to Gayoom. The Supreme Court bench itself is composed mostly of Gayoom loyalists who share his political ideologies.

It makes sense to me now that, when Majlis voted on President Nasheed’s nominations, DRP opposed most of them. Having been in a position to observe the negotiations closely, I myself believe that Nasheed’s nominations, opposed by DRP, comprised less biased, more suitable candidates.

At the time, DRP was Gayoom’s party with a majority in Parliament. DRP MPs made a habit of rejecting Nasheed’s nominations and proposing a list of their own instead. They pushed hard to sit certain individuals—like self-declared Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed, a known Gayoom-affiliate—on the bench.

With the country facing a Constitutional void, President Nasheed compromised and nominated the current bench for Parliament approval.

Aishath Velezenee, a former Member of the Judicial Services Commission has provided a detailed account of how the process for appointing Supreme Court Judges took place.

The simple truth that we all know is, Supreme Court decisions have in one way or the other, benefited Gayoom and his allies. Is it a coincidence there is yet to be a Supreme Court decision that went against Gayoom or his allies?

Gayoom loyalists are similarly entrenched within the security services. Their loyalty to the dear leader had a major role to play in their mutiny against Nasheed on February 7, facilitating as it did the controversial transfer of power later that day.

Gayoom has denied widely circulated reports he was directing the night’s events from Malaysia. It cannot be denied, however, that he gave a phone interview to opposition-controlled media, indirectly encouraging the mutinying police.

It is no coincidence that after the coup, the head of security services are all pro-Gayoom loyalists. Now we have a Police Commissioner who served as the Deputy Commissioner in Gayoom’s regime, a regime well known for police brutality and torture.

The defence minister is a retired Colonel who also served under Gayoom. Furthermore, a reflection on the events in February 8 last year also shows that our security forces still continue Gayoom’s legacies.

Police brutality towards peaceful protesters, a defining characteristic of Gayoom’s regime, returned to the streets of Male’ with a vengeance, less than 24 hours after Nasheed’s government was brought to an end. It wasn’t hard to feel as if we had regressed, before 2008, before democracy.

Independent institutions play a vital role in consolidation of a democracy. Unfortunately for the Maldives, Gayoom loyalists are firmly embedded within, and often dominate, institutions like the Human Rights Commission, Police Integrity Commission and Civil Service Commission.

Most individuals comprising these commissions served in Gayoom’s government and still maintain close ties with him. This is hardly surprising given that just as with the nomination of Supreme Court justices, here too it was a DRP-majority Majlis that confirmed or rejected nominees to commissions.

The loyalty of some independent commissions to Gayoom was indeed evident from their actions following the police brutality on February 8. Neither the Human Rights Commission, nor the Policy Integrity Commission took any firm actions against the misconducts from the security forces.

Gayoom’s current party, the PPM, is so determined to retain these loyalists within the independent commissions that it is prepared to disregard even findings of serious misconduct against such individuals. The ongoing saga of Civil Service Commission (CSC) Chair Mohamed Fahmy is a case in point.

Parliament’s Independent Institutions Committee found in favour of a female staff member who accused Fahmy of sexual harassment and voted to remove him from the post. PPM members fought hard, but in vain, to save Fahmy. The Supreme Court was then asked to rule on whether the parliament’s decision was constitutional. Not surprisingly, the Supreme Court ruled in Fahmy’s favour.

Gayoom’s dictatorial legacy, entrenched deep within our political system is the main obstacle to the consolidation of democracy in the Maldives. The 75 year-old leader’s revived political activeness is further strengthening this obstacle. Reforms to the judiciary, independent institutions and security forces are essential if we are to consolidate and sustain democracy.

[i] See for example, Shin, Doh Chull (1994), ‘On the third wave of democratization: A synthesis and evaluation of recent theory and research’, World Politics, 47 (1), 135-70.

Ahmed Hamdhan is a third-year Bachelor of Arts (Policy Studies and Political Science) and a student at the Australian National University.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]