Comment: Nasheed’s messy democratic revolution

Before we go to the ballot box again, we must understand why the first elected government was so short-lived. Some point to Nasheed’s activist personality, others to Gayoom’s control over the judiciary, and many cite political opponents’ impatience to attain power. All these highlight the dominance of personalities in our political landscape, and the lack of institutionalism in political behavior and state affairs. One underlying factor, that has received little attention in the public domain, but is emerging as Waheed’s ministers dissect Nasheed’s policies, is the economy.

Incumbents generally avoid talking about sovereign debt, budget deficits, and budget cuts, unless they are criticising their opponent’s budget in a campaign trail. And the few times that a sitting president talks about his own budget, it is a glossed over version of how well the economy is doing, how the GDP will double in the coming year, how inflation is expected to fall, and how food and fuel prices will drop to affordable levels. The electorate is usually unaware of how serious the budget deficit is, and ignorant of the perplexities involved in budget cuts under a democratic government. So it is no surprise that the electorate judges its government unfairly when it comes to economic management. Most accept the hollow promises, and expect results, but governments that are strapped for cash, more often than not, cannot deliver.

This poses big problems for a developing country struggling to implement democracy. First, the pressure on incumbents to deliver in times of deficits threatens democratic institutionalisation. Nasheed, who was up for re-election, tried to deliver at any cost, and chose to bypass democratic practices to achieve quick results. Take for example the airport lease. To meet budget needs, Nasheed chose the bidder who offered the largest sum up front, not the bidder with the best plan. When the airport board resigned, he put together a new board overnight to force the deal amidst allegations of foul play. The opposition was no doubt disloyal and irresponsible under Nasheed, and attempted to block and discredit his administration on all fronts. Nasheed tackled these problems by choosing to interpret laws and regulations in his favor, which meant there was little conformity in the state of affairs. Alas, the process of democratic institutionalization was nipped in the bud.

But the deeper problem for democracy in Maldives is not this.

Corrupt practices, and the dominance of personalities over institutions are merely manifestations of a problem that runs deeper: It essentially boils down to the dilemma of maintaining democracy without its protectors, saviors, and messiahs, in other words, a middle class; a middle class that will prop up democracy because it is the most conducive system to protecting its economic interests, and values of individual autonomy and self-expression.

If a middle class exists in Maldives, it has neither the numbers, nor the voice, to stand up for democratic principles.

Agents of Democracy

Middles classes are central to democratic analyses for two reasons: they install democracy, and ensure that it is “the only game in town” and there to stay.

Historically, democracy was born out of revolutions led or hijacked by the bourgeois, the land-owning middle class. In the UK, democracy followed the Glorious Revolution of the 17th century where the bourgeois who had accumulated wealth over time, gained enough power in the Long Parliament to demand that the king trade some political power in return for the right to tax. Likewise, in France, a revolution planted the seeds of democracy. In the 1700s, the French bourgeoisie, aided by a peasant revolution, formed the Constituent Assembly in opposition to the Estates General, abolished feudalism, and established the first French Republic.

Several centuries later, the salience of the middle class for democracy is not lost on us. Political Scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote a paper recently asking, “Can liberal democracy survive the decline of the middle class?” In it, he argues that one of challenges to democracy today is the left’s inability to articulate a realistic agenda that has any hope of protecting a middle-class society.

A multiparty election in 2008 in Maldives was not a result of a mass movement, or a middle class led revolution. It was as much a coup from within against Gayoom by his own ministers, and pressure from outside by a group of courageous and determined individuals, and by foreign governments. For a short key duration, this medley of actors took upon themselves, the responsibilities of a middle class, and installed democracy in Maldives.

The Middle Class Dilemma

If the role of the middle class as initiators has been lacking in second and third wave democracies, its absence is all the more apparent in the aftermath of the first free and fair elections. Political scientists concede that the statement “No bourgeois, no democracy,” holds true in most cases. The theory goes that, industrialisation sets in motion a process of modernisation that penetrates all aspects of life, “bringing occupational specialisation, urbanisation, rising educational levels, rising life expectancy, and rapid economic growth.” In short, industrialisation sets in motion modernization that gives birth to a middle class that at once demand “their right to have rights.” The order is important: development leads to democracy, because it creates a middle class in whose self-interest it is to support democratic values. The history of democracy in the West suggests that the growth of a middle class must precede the successful installation of democracy.

This sequence of events- industrialisation, modernisation, democracy- poses a grave problem for us.

To create a middle class, there has to be development. But fostering development within a democratic framework is a serious challenge in low-income countries. Nasheed was handed this gargantuan task when he came to power in 2008. Indian Scholar Ashutosh Varshney explains India’s struggle to do the same: “India is attempting a transformation few nations in modern history have successfully managed: liberalising the economy within an established democratic order.It is hard to escape the impression that market interests and democratic principles are uneasily aligned in India today. The two are not inherently contradictory, but there are tensions between them that India’s leaders will have to manage carefully.”

Why? Because “market-based policies meant to increase the efficiency of the aggregate economy frequently generate short-term dislocations and resentment. In a democratic polity, this resentment often translates at the ballot box into a halt or a reversal of pro-market reforms.” Successful western democracies, the US, the U., and France installed democracies after their countries transitioned to capitalist modes of production and modernised. They liberalised their markets before universal suffrage.

Nasheed’s struggle

Absent development or a revolution that transforms the economy in favor of the many, the onus of creating a middle class falls on the nascent democratic government. Nasheed’s policy objectives were in line with creating a middle class. Whether he implemented market reforms because of serious budget deficits or because of a genuine concern with redistribution, is beside the point. Head on, and fully aware who held the reigns to campaign funds, Nasheed tackled the loaded question of how to shift from an economy that enriches a few, to one that increases the pie and divvies it up more equally.

All said and done, and numerous controversies over lease agreements, minimum wage bills, and the right to strike, his tax reforms were a revolutionary break with the past. It was a first attempt at usurping the status quo. There were more. The barter system- trading an island for a harbor, a sewerage system, or a housing project- drove down the value of uninhabited islands, threatened to increase supply, and drive down the value of existing tourism products. Not only did Nasheed increase supply, but islands were handed left and right to new entrants to the tourism industry, threatening the existing oligarchy. In short, if there was a democratic revolution in Maldives, it was during Nasheed’s administration, encapsulated in his controversial market reforms that attempted to usurp the status quo, and re-distribute wealth. It was messy, it was fraught with corruption, but it was the closest we came to one.

Whereas market reforms disproportionately affect the poor in neighboring India, the unique Maldivian economy dictated that the grand oligarchy, the tourism tycoons, bore the brunt of market reforms in Maldives. A backlash was to be expected.

Nasheed’s mistake

Nasheed administration’s struggles demonstrate the dissonance in democratic theory when applied in a postindustrial world. But he also made calls that were unnecessary, and aggravated the problem of consolidating democracy without a middle class.

One of Nasheed’s biggest mistakes was in trying to modernise the masses overnight, before his policies yielded results. In a parallel process (to his market reforms), and too late in the game, Nasheed attempted to modernise through rhetoric (the likes of “Medhumin Rally”), poor decision-making (SAARC monuments), and behavior that cast him as not Islamic enough. He challenged the majority’s most dearly held identity, which is growing to be a stronger Islamic identity. The process of modernising a people is a carefully measured process that requires a special focus on reform in the economic and social realms, so that wealth and intellect are distributed more equally. And it takes time.

So it is no surprise that despite building several harbors, installing a health post on every inhabited island, increasing housing units in urban areas, and implementing a tax system, people in the outer islands, who benefited more under Nasheed than Gayoom, continues to support Gayoom’s party over the MDP. In the local council elections, which served as a referendum on the MDP government, the MDP lost most of the council seats in the outer islands, despite a well-organised campaign, and over 100 island visits by Nasheed himself.

Given such realities, the next elected government should expect no immediate rewards from the masses at the ballot box contingent on policy successes, and must be wise enough to withstand a backlash from the wealthy in the face of controversial yet necessary market reforms. The next government we elect will face the same challenges Nasheed’s did, but it can avoid ad hoc and impulsive decision-making that contributed to his accelerated downfall.

Fostering development that creates a middle class within a democratic framework is a serious challenge, perhaps one that has very few success stories. But one thing is for certain: it requires a strategising leadership that is strong enough to stand up to the business elite, yet thoughtful enough to understand the nuances dictating democratic consolidation.

The way things are moving in Maldives, I doubt we will have an election before 2013. But a bigger threat for democracy in Maldives is, come Election Day, we may not have a strong and serious leadership to vote for. If the focus is only on an election date, we are giving our politicians a free ride to power, and passing on a second chance at democracy.

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: I am for democracy too

A coup is a coup. Much of what transpired at MNDF headquarters the morning of February 7 remains unclear, but several key facts have come to light, and placed in the context of Maldivian politics, leave no doubt in my mind that President Nasheed was ousted in a cleverly executed coup.

Following Nasheed’s forced resignation, the entire country burned. Key law enforcement institutions became Enemy Number One overnight. In contrast to the relative professional and non-violent reaction to protests against Judge Abdulla’s arbitrary detention, police used brutal force and violently targeted key MDP officials on February 8. Controversial appointments to key posts in Dr Waheed’s government, particularly the Minister of Defence and the Commissioner of Police, who served as the main interlocutors with President Nasheed at MNDF HQ, with no legitimacy whatsoever, further deteriorate MDP supporters’ faith in the police and the MNDF.

In an atmosphere so emotionally charged and tense, it is an elephantine task to remain rational, to stick to facts, and to make decisions that will save our democracy in the long run. It is even harder to do so when media channels, on either side of the political divide, are biased and resorting to propaganda. Nasheed and his supporters have unleashed a deluge of hyperbole to rile up crowds and chip away whatever is left of the public’s trust in the police and the armed forces.

Nasheed showed Waheed’s government and the international community his ammunition when he led his supporters into a direct, violent confrontation with the police and armed forces on Wednesday. He is using the threat of violence to force elections in two months, when it is very clear that an election in two months will not be free and fair. In the meantime, Waheed has come out to say he will not hold elections until 2013. What has been lacking in our democracy since 2008 stands in the way of restoring democracy today. Democracy is about compromise. Nasheed and Waheed need to meet each other half way so that our democracy is not flushed down the drains of history.

Even if Waheed’s government is illegitimate, what is done is done. And protracted civil unrest and violence in small communities, which may take generations to heal, is not the way forward. At a time when people are divided and emotional, we need strong leaders who place the good of the nation above personal gain. Waheed must have the balls to ensure that his government does not go after senior leaders in the MDP in the run up to elections in six months. In return to agreeing for elections in six months, Nasheed and his co must be given guarantees by Waheed’s government that the MDP leadership and supporters will not be made political prisoners. In my mind, there is really no other way forward and if people have suggestions, it is time we start a national debate on how to overcome this impasse in a conciliatory manner.

You say a liberal?

That said, the coup d’etat of February 7 is also a window of opportunity for the people to demand more and better from of our political leadership. One person had written on facebook that we might have been too tolerant of President Nasheed’s runaway administration. True, opposition political parties under Nasheed’s administration did not play by the same lofty rules we set for the government. But with more power comes more responsibility. Nasheed was in power, the opposition parties were not, hence the double standards in expectations. With our civil society so weak from 30 years of authoritarian rule, the political leadership had a massive responsibility. Nasheed had the power to write the story of our democracy differently. He may have lost elections in 2013 if he did, but he would have been a mighty hero in my mind had he focused on strengthening our democratic institutions over forcing and bypassing democratic institutions to ensure the fulfillment of the MDP’s five key pledges.

A 30-year dictatorship left a legacy: an uneven playing field; a weak civil society; a small and toothless middle class; a dearth of self-thinking peoples; and a biased media. The vestiges of dictatorship remain and they matter. History matters. But it only directs, it does not determine. The many constitutional crises, the political posturing, and the name-calling we see today are not inevitable results of a 30-year dictatorship. It is the combined result of a 30-year dictatorship, and a conscious choice by the Nasheed administration to play power politics instead of fostering the slow, painful and perhaps, in the short run, self-defeating, democratic reforms that would have strengthened our democracy.

When Nasheed came to power in 2008, he inherited not only a massive budget deficit, but also a political system that operated on political patronage. Nasheed did not try to change this informal system. He adopted masters of such politicking, including Ibrahim Hussein Zaki and Hassan Afeef into his administration, indicating that political realism would provide Nasheed government’s ideological grounding. To outwit Gayoom et al, Nasheed decided to play the power game instead of democracy. In doing so he acted like an astute politician, not a liberal democrat. Those who expected the latter, mostly liberals, are deeply disappointed with the Nasheed administration. The handful of young and educated who were convinced that an MDP defeat in 2013 would spell out the end of democracy, and those who foresaw an end to their innings with the end of Nasheed’s government, were glad that he played the part of a clever politician. But then the coup happened.

In a very real way, Nasheed himself is to blame for presenting coup planners with ample fodder and opportunity. Arbitrarily detaining Chief Judge of the Criminal Court Abdulla Mohamed for nearly 20 days, in spite of the arrest’s unconstitutionality, in spite of continued street protests that often turned violent, and in spite of escalating police fatigue, Nasheed defended the arrest to the last minutes of his administration and continues to defend it today. But to this day, Nasheed has not explained the precise national security threat that justified the military detention of Abdulla Mohamed. By commanding the MNDF to arbitrarily arrest Abdulla Mohamed and detain him on their training camp, Nasheed unnecessarily plunged one of Maldives’ few professional institutions into disarray and opened it up to politicisation. Presidents who are concerned with consolidating democracy do not issue such orders. They do not think in “either or” terms. Creativity and compromise are fundamental characteristics of a strong democratic leadership.

You say a revolution in 2008?

History matters. Those who were rich and powerful under Gayoom, remain rich and powerful today. In short, our democratic “revolution” in 2008 failed to change the status quo. The aristocrats and merchants who own the tourism, fishing, construction, and shipping industries act like an oligarchy. They have the means to ensure that they maintain their monopolies and deflect any harm that come their way. Take for example what happened with the penalties for tax evasion. And where is the minimum wage bill? What happened to workers’ right to strike? When democratic institutions, such as the parliament, become monopolised by aristocrats and merchants, and when the main rule of law institution, that is the court system, remains dominated by unlearned persons who are easily manipulated by the aristocrats and merchants, the middle class that is the key to democratic consolidation, has no representation and no space to assert itself.

To his credit, Nasheed did attempt to foster a middle class. He implemented a long overdue taxation system that forced tourism tycoons to pay their fair share for state bills. His policies sought to improve access to basic services. And he faced huge challenges. But in playing power politics, he also ensured that the rich and powerful remained so, and nurtured a new group of rich and powerful people who would ostensibly protect his presidency and candidacy in 2013. To that end, a number of development projects continued to fall into the hands of those affiliated with the MDP, and sometimes those hands were not the most capable and able. And the lease of Ibrahim Nasir International Airport is anything but transparent. If justice is fairness, Nasheed government’s corrupt activities fell short of delivering justice, and served to exacerbate the already existing crisis in the judiciary.

Way Forward

The way forward is in compromise and learning from mistakes. It is not in taking sides and refusing to budge. Peace is not a platitude. To characterise peace, conciliation, and negotiation as platitudes and “bullshit” is to reject the essence of democracy. And being “colorless”, and withholding blind support for the MDP or any other political party is not a wholesale rejection of democracy. Restoring Nasheed, whichever way possible, will not restore democracy.

No to street violence, No to political witch hunts, No to destroying the social fabric of our small nation, and No to politicising our armed forces and the police. But Yes to elections in six months. The current government is illegitimate and the nation cannot afford to wait until 2013 for presidential elections. At the same time, MDP supporters will risk the nation by going out on to the streets. The political leadership of this country should go to the negotiation table fast if we are to restore democracy. And people of this country should step back from pledging blind support to leaders. Learn from mistakes. Pledge your support to democratic processes. Pledge your support to negotiations and elections, not in two months when an election would be impossible, but in six months, when it has a better chance of translating your vote freely and fairly.

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: The politics of arrogance

There are so many things wrong with our democracy. A dysfunctional judiciary, stunted and already disintegrating party system, politicised and unprofessional media, polarized society, growing intolerance, xenophobia and the list goes on. But whatever the affliction is, the one underlying factor is always corruption. We know, corruption is an old song sung by all politicians everywhere. But this time around, we are not talking about the corruption of the old, the established and the already corrupt, but about the corruption of a fairly young generation of politicians who will possibly remain in Maldivian politics for another 30-40 years. We are talking about the corruption of a generation of politicians who could have been defined otherwise.

What went wrong?

The Maldives is celebrated as a model for peaceful transition to democracy. The opening up of the political system that began in 2003 led to free and fair elections fairly quickly. The old autocrat was not arrested and thrown into jail as happens in so many other countries, but instead given a hefty pension package and left to himself for the most part. Three branches of the state were made separate and independent, and the fourth estate was given its due freedom. What went wrong?

What went wrong is strikingly similar to what goes wrong in so many African democracies. The liberator who wrenches his people from the clutches of exploitative colonial powers is hailed in as the good leader, and then the people are forever stuck with him. And he is good, at least in the prologue. He must have believed in freedom, in people’s right to make their own destinies and to live a good life, to have fought so long and hard and put his neck on the line. For his bravery and courage, he is rewarded with legitimacy, people’s love and admiration. And he is handed the ultimate prize (via a free and fair election, of course)- the chance to become the president of the first real democracy in that country. But somewhere along the line, the leader miscalculates how far he can push his legitimacy and thinks himself above the law. In order to ‘save his people’, he convinces himself that he has to do whatever it takes, and sometimes the whatever part involves ugly nasty immoral things like corruption, bribery and appeasing big businesses at the cost of the public good.

Let’s not forget the party machinery that often ushers in these liberator-type leaders. What eventually ends up becoming a political party often starts out as a movement, a movement for freedom, liberation and democracy. The sole purpose of the movement-cum-political party is to free the people. And as such, upon independence or at the end of dictatorship, the party becomes a mere vehicle for the liberator-leader to ride in to take his rightful place as the head of the new democracy. Sadly, the party ceases to become anything more. Tangled in the politics of the day, the party fails to mature. It lacks a clearly articulated ideology, a set of values or anything for that matter that can define it independently of its liberation history. And just for the record, no, five key pledges does not amount to an ideology. People cannot be expected to analyse the party manifesto and derive the party’s philosophy on their own, if it exists at all. And no, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s personality does not amount to an ideology either.

What is so wrong now?

The problem is, not only does the party continue to be the liberator’s vehicle to remain in power but it begins to destroy all other parties around it, sometimes by guns and outright violence, but in our case with ‘secret’ deals that are not only accepted, but boasted about in political circles and laughed over at cocktail parties. “Hey, I paid Mrf 5 million and a BMW for that guy over there” wink. “Oh really, well I paid about Mrf 15 million for this guy right here. Prices keep rising by the day…we better buy up all available on the market before prices go through the roof! Hohoho!” And so, riding high on liberation victory, the leader and his party come to practice a vile sort of politics. A politics of “only we can be trusted with power” and “damn those slow and tedious democratic process.” In short, the politics of arrogance.

Of course, the liberator and his party machinery try to justify this politics of arrogance. They say that if they do not deliver and make good on their key pledges, then not only may they lose elections come 2013, but that, lo and behold, they will surely lose it to the old dictator or his brother! Not only that, if the MDP fails to deliver, ‘the people’ will cease to believe in the promise of democracy! And God forbid, we cannot let these things happen, not after all the blood and tears, not after trying so damn hard to go by that complicated and cumbersome constitution.

Therefore, in its mad frenzy to get everything done before the clock strikes 12 o’clock in 2013, the MDP government, instead of putting up a steady honest fight, is buying the entire game and in the process, relying less and less on democratic processes. We need not look beyond parliament for evidence. Let us be clear, the MDP is not outwardly undemocratic. Besides the occasional slip of the tongue, it sticks to its narrative of democratic governance at the podiums. But away from the cameras and the public’s eye, the party and most Maldivian politicians engage in what can be termed as real deal-making. And this real deal-making almost always subverts democratic processes. Surely, this has to be informal politics at its best.

And again, just for the record, given the blatant political prostitution in parliament, even if the government builds an apartment for every Maldivian (doesn’t matter if they can afford it), a hospital (too expensive to maintain) on every island, establishes a fast ferry between all islands and makes every youth drug-free (but perhaps jobless), that does not prove that democracy worked. It merely proves that the MDP party machinery and its tactics worked. And these are two very different claims that have far-reaching consequences.

Why is it wrong?

The bitter result of the politics of arrogance and the corruption and bribery it necessitates is that it is imbibing a new generation of politicians with the view that politics is ultimately about being in power. That without absolute power, you cannot get anything done. That power is the be-all and end-all of politics. In doing so, they have changed the narrative of the land from “what is good?” to “what is the lesser evil?” And that is a damn shame. For if there was a reason I voted, it was because I trusted my elected official to make wise decisions that would contribute to me living well, and at the same time contribute to the greater good of the society. And I also trusted that official to not always see the greater good in monetary terms. And I also trusted that official not to cast the building of a harbor, an airport or a housing project as incompatible with sticking to democratic processes.

So the story goes that, the politics of arrogance not only deprives a nation of honest and virtuous politicians, but also buries the common good and on its tomb, plants the seeds of political power and waters it with the greed and lust of an emerging generation of crass politicians who are morally stunted and politically shackled for years to come.

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]