Comment: A preface to explaining democratisation in the Maldives

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. Because of this lack of literature on the historic changes that have been taking place in the Maldives, this musing is a preface to democratisation in the Maldives.

Since the beginning of what Samuel P Huntington famously called the “third wave” of democratisation in mid-1970s, efforts toward finding explanations of comparative democratisation intensified. To this day, there is however no single theory of demoratisation that will satisfy everyone or that will explain every single case of democratisation. There are probably many factors and independent variables that explain democratisation.

The Maldives’ case also shows that no single explanatory factor or theory is sufficient. But, following Huntington, we could try to explain Maldives’ democratisation along its “why” and “how”.

The Why: modernisation, valuation and grievances

There will hardly be any Maldivians who seriously dispute that the current president Mohamed Nasheed has no important role to play in democratisation in the Maldives.

“What and who” he is, I think, is a representative case of why and how democratisation happened in the Maldives. The “what” factors are well explained by modernisation theory of democratisation most famously advanced by Martin Lipset. Lipset argued that that economic development and modernisation are strongly correlated with democracy. In brief, he argued that education (an aspect of modernisation) facilitates people’s valuation of their beliefs and values and thereby they come to accept democratic values.

I said Nasheed is a representative case because I want to emphasise five factors relevant to democratisation in the Maldives. First, Nasheed was educated in Great Britain where he was, both as a child and an adolescent, exposed to democracy in practice.

Second, I want to emphasise the fact that the global discourse of democracy as the most viable political system permeated the hearts and minds of many Maldivians.

Third, Nasheed is not a representative case of the whole or even majority of the Maldives’ population. He is a representative case of only those who are relatively exposed to the discourse of democracy and who have been one way or another aggrieved by the personal dictatorship of Gayoom.

Fourth – and I know this is going to be very controversial – the Maldives’ democratisation is not a mass-based democratisation movement as evidenced by the relatively low support the “democratic opposition” garnered in elections starting from the election for Constitutional Assembly. Alternatively, this is evidenced by the high support Gayoom still attracts.

Hence, the Maldives is closer to the transition model explained by Guillermo O’Donnell. The Maldives is a case of democratisation largely by elites who had either come to value democracy (because of modernisation factors) and/or who were aggrieved by the personal dictatorship of Gayoom (While the “clan power-struggle” model explained by Mohamed Nasheed in his illuminating book, Maldives Politics, bears some structural similarity to this model, I doubt Nasheed’s model any longer explains the Maldives’ politics).

Fifth, international factors, which are of course again well documented in democratisation literature, played an important role by virtue of the fact that both the authoritarian system and opposition were subjected to what I call international “politics of naming and shaming”.

The How: a play of elites?

“Why” factors, however, don’t tell us the causers of democratisation. This is where transition model is helpful.

Democratisation researchers subscribing to transition paradigm say there must always be a crisis in the authoritarian regime for democratic transition to take place. It could be an economic or other crisis.

Where was this crisis in the Maldives? Was it Evan Naseem’s murder and subsequent riots? Was it 12/13 August mass arrests and subsequent divisions in Gayoom’s regime? Or was it the December 26 Tsunami?

Another factor emphasised by O’Donnell is the rise of a more moderate/liberal elite faction within the government. Alternatively, the dictator himself or herself could start to liberalise because of the crisis.

The Maldives I think is a case of ‘transplacement’ transition where transition occurred through the actions of both the government and the opposition. Gayoom of course maintains it is a case of ‘transformation’ where he initiated reforms.

It is debatable whether Maldives is one of transplacement or transformation or mixed case.

It certainly is not a case of replacement where the personal dictatorship of Gayoom was overthrown or replaced by democrats.

It is perhaps more accurate to say that liberalising elites within the government played the game within the regime. Also, ironically, the hiring of (PR firm) Hill & Knowlton itself could have played against the hardliners in regime as ‘public relations’ never work without real reforms.

The transition paradigm also gives room for the opposition elite. In fact, in the Maldives the opposition protests (again by no means popular mass mobilisations) and opposition campaigning by figures such as Ahmed Shafeeg Moosa using 21st century information technology were the reasons a liberalising elite faction was born in the first place.

There were also factors that facilitated or obstructed democratisation in the elite-interplay. These included, among other things, the problem of divisions within the opposition itself. Usually, it is the moderate elites within the opposition that facilitate democratisation.

Revolutionary-minded figures such as the current president Mohamed Nasheed within the opposition were unsuccessful in mobilising enough numbers for an outright overthrow of Gayoom regime. They ultimately had to moderate or adapt themselves towards a “transplacement” model where the opposition and regime elites negotiated the terms of democratisation.

Finally, while the opposition protests were not mass-mobilisation protests, they had the benefit of seeking international attention for a “politics of naming and shaming”. As a country dependent on import, foreign aid, tourism, and good standing with the outside world, the “politics of naming and shaming” by long-standing human rights NGOs like the Amnesty International and pressures from the EU became too much for the authoritarian regime.

So that is how the Maldives transitioned to an “electoral democracy” in October 2008.

Azim Zahir is studying for a Master of Human Rights at the University of Sydney, Australia.

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]


19 thoughts on “Comment: A preface to explaining democratisation in the Maldives”

  1. "The Maldives is a case of democratisation largely by elites who had either come to value democracy" - is it that the elite value democracy or the resources they control when they control the Govt? I believe its the latter. Actions from the elements of the so called 'democratic elite' such as Ibrahim hussain zaki, Maria, Reeko moosa etc have shown that this has got little to do with 'democracy' and everything to do with control of resources. Over zealous students of human rights like the author of this article may try to project this in a slightly different way through an academic lense. But the reality doesnt change. All that matters is who controls what portion of USD1 billion odd dollars we get every year from tourism.

  2. The language of Human Rights does not lend itself to a deep exploration of realpolitik and the complexities of socio-political movements.

    I agree wholeheartedly with Saiful Islam's comments. The people in power are very much a product of their country regardless of their exposure to Western models of thought and forms of speech. They seem to be very much a rival clan in need of control over the limited yet lucrative resources of the Maldives.

    Democracy, Human Rights, Islam, Nazism, these are all but merely lexicons that politicians in poor third-world countries use in order to attract Western interest to themselves.

    Any fool might deduce that President Nasheed, as the figurehead of a rival clan that has been vying for power since the 1970s has convinced the West that in return for acting as a "model" of democracy to justify the "revolutions" funded and forced in the Middle-East in order to secure gains with regards to Israel, the Maldives and its new dictators will be given the necessary white-washing and finance to keep them in power. If only we could produce local leadership with the will and means to deal with donors on an equal basis and develop independent intellectual thought.

  3. You did not have to write all that to explain the Maldives transition to "democracy". Here I have a concise formula.

    Kleptocratic governance + (poverty + affluence)+ (misinformation + access to information) + high literacy = Revolt

    "Democracy" in quotes because we are not yet a democratic country

  4. Just because someone is exposed to democracy does not mean that they advocate democracy. Just like President Nasheed, several of those in Gayoom's regime like Dr Mausoom, Dr Jameel, Dr Shaheed, and Yameen were also exposed to democracy during their student years. Dr Munavvar studied in Russia but he is not a communist either. Gaddafi's son was also educated in UK.

  5. Interesting Article, thank you.

    I do not see a transformation to democracy here because transformation of a society is the movement (by conscious choice) of the mass towards a holistic way of life where the general well being of people are above the individual desires and incorporates values and principles that society as a whole will uphold. Transformation is not the result of a crisis either nor does it necessarily occur as an alternative to something existing. Again it occurs when people realize that they have go onto a higher level of existence.

    The changes in Maldives occurred when people felt they needed something different after years of dictatorship, not because they transformed nor because they were able to define what and how they wanted the change. The change in Maldives Is a replacement of a failed system with another with the hope that the new approach might work.

    Unfortunately it is not backed by the people (Maldivians) with the qualities to achieve what they desire.

    And besides it, democracy is not a torch to be carries by the leading few. It must be carried by the mass. While international support may help the transition, it will not help transformation.

  6. We know what kind of democracy the elites in this community wants! Yes,,its the kind of democracy where Islam can be wiped off from this Island state. Blind, deaf and dump puppets of Money like Dr.Shaheed and his likes are dancing to the wims and music of zionist and secularist! The rich elite few families still controls the country and the rulers! The rulers cannot stand against them! Even Anni cannot! He knows he can't implement policies such as increase in tourism tax and other taxes for social and economic reform because the elites (Champa, Universal, AAA, Gasim, Sun..etc) will fight back! We know these families break every law in this country, but rulers cannot implement law! WHY? DEMOCRACY IS JUST THE MASK!! Lets wait till the true reformist emerge from these dirts! God always have a plan..against these unjust! The end has just began!..we shall wait..insha Allah.

  7. One... gets an impression that civilization is something which was imposed on a resisting majority by a minority which understood how to obtain possession of the means to power and coercion. It is, of course, natural to assume that these difficulties are not inherent in the nature of civilization itself but are determined by the imperfections of the cultural forms which have so far been developed. ~Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion

  8. Awesome, enlightening peace.

    Thanks. Yes there are many reasons ppl support democracy. The desire to gain the power to make one's business succeed, clan rivalry, all these can be fought for under the banner of democracy. Idealists and their expressions are not normally enough to democratize a nation without the financial backing of those who may want democracy for less pure motives.

    The reason I like this concept of 'liberal democracy,' is that I like this hope that ppl can be free from the fear of expressing their basic desire for human rights and justice.

    I don't doubt the idealism, the liberalism in Mohammed Nasheed's heart no matter what motives his supporters, financial backers may have. At the same time, he is evidently pragmatic enough to realize he cannot have the power to implement his ideals without the backing of those who may want to push their less than Holy agenda's, so he has to do that. It is a balancing act.

    If you can'y overcome moral dilemas, ethical dilema's, if you can't choose the lesser evil, you can't move in the real world.

    Like Saul Alinsky said, if you are always needing to make the means to achieving the end of justice moral, you will be strait jacketed in hypocritical, self-righteous inactivity. The priority is freedom form inhuman fear, and it would not be moral or compassionate to stop yourself from realizing that in the name of being Holy and morally upright. That is a harsh political reality that even politicians in the most liberal democratic countries cannot avoid.

    On the other hand, will these compromises be his undoing? Seems so sometimes.

    For me the question as to how successfully the Maldives has been democratised is, do people live with dignity? Can they afford to live, eat healthy, sleep healthy? Do you experience the fear to express their basic hunger for human rights and justice.

    My point is, there is a lot of work to be done still.

  9. Ben - As for dignity, living, eating and sleeping healthy the Maldives is worse off now than it has been in our recent memory. We are crippled by fear all the time, to send our kids out and even to sleep at home. As for food prices they have all gone up probably due to the dollar shortage. Small business are failing and many have gone bankrupt. Those who earn in foreign currency are too scared to keep the money in the country as Nasheed's government is so unreliable. Nasheed says one thing today and does the opposite tomorrow. As for dignity our leader President Nasheed has threatened all opposition on national television that he will show how nasty a guy he is if they make things difficult for him. This is I guess the first time ever in the history of the world that a democratic president has threatened the opposition in this fashion. This is the state we are at. The bitter medicine that is being pushed down our throat in the name of democracy has turned out to be a fake imitation by a fake democrat Nasheed who has been very successful in fooling gullible locals and a lot of foreigners who have no clue or don't care about what goes on locally.

  10. It is a joy to read an article like this, but the material must be developed to the level of a high quality book. This would require more work.

    I have not the slightest doubt that people like President Mohamed Nasheed and Ahmed Moosa of Dhivehi Observer fame are revolutionaries and reformers of world class.

    People like Zaki and Maria Ahmed Didi are also very impressive and formidable characters.

    There are other interesting players. To name only a few: Munawwar, Gasim, Mausoom. They are all different from each other. But they are all notable personalities.

    However, towering above them all, in the reformist and protest period against Gayyoom, are figures like Mohamed Nasheed and Ahmed Moosa. They are notable for their bravery, creativity and originality.

    They are head and shoulders above their peers, and it is their talents that attracted so much international sympathy. Without that sympathy and support, His Majesty Gayyoom would not have been forced to abdicate from the throne that he had usurped.

    I remember attending the inaugural festivities of President Mohamed Ameen Didi. Like him, his successors were all dictators right until Gayyoom Didi. But they were not dictators like the dictators in an other comparable country. They were dictators produced by the unique conditions of the Maldivian nation-state.

    All our dictators were aristocrats, and they were consciously so. They were not voted in by the people. They were not answerable to the people.

    Like the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt, these modern-day Maldivian dictators tolerated no dissent and mercilessly killed all visible and even invisible opposition. Moreover, like the Pharaohs of old, these Maldivian rulers endeavoured wholeheartedly each one to be greater and more powerful than his predecessor.

    In his last few years,out of a total of 21, Nasir concentrated on accumulating money. At the end of his 21 years, Nasir had collected a magnificent fortune both in US dollars and Maldivian rufiahs.

    Much more highly educated and sophisticated than Nasir, Gayyoom had more money, technology and better security services at his disposal than Nasir. He lasted for 30 years, that is nine years longer than Nasir.

    Nasir had a most disgraceful end. Upto now, Gayyoom has doggedly avoided Nasir's fate. He remains the supreme leader of a powerful political party, and stays a revered figure to a lot of Maldivian people.

    Financially he started from almost nothing, very much like Nasir. But now, Gayyoom, his children, relatives and friends are extremely wealthy people in the Maldives.

    Like in USA, money talks even in Maldives.

    Unlike the previous presidents and prime ministers, Gayyoom played the Islamic card very cleverly. Always quoting the Quran and Hadith, he has always commanded and received total and uncritical obedience from others.

    Islam is a mighty weapon in the hands of Muslim dictators. This is true of Maldives and other Muslim countries. Nobody dares to go against Islam. Not even Mohamed Nasheed.

    Judging by what appears in Minivan News, there is at least full and complete freedom of speech in the Maldives.

    The judiciary are also showing signs of developing in the right direction.

    The Parliament is no longer the puppet of the President, as it was always the case before.

    The security forces are now under parliamentary supervision.

    It remains for Maldivian democracy to develop a sound socio-economic base. Man cannot live by democracy alone.

    It remains for the Maldivian masses to be converted to the ideology of democracy. Democracy must become so rooted in the people of Maldives that it is no longer a minority faith as it seems to be right now.

  11. Interesting article, I would agree that Evan Naseem case was a turning point in the country' political change and indeed president Nasheed was a ket catalysts. I am not particularly
    Convinced of the existence of a " democratic elite", people wanted a change at all levels, starting from the grassroots, 40 percent of the voters, the deciding voters voted for a change, they were not aligned to any political party, and what MDP sold to them was the coalition. The reason why MDP did not fair so well with the parliamentary election is that this 40 percent were not impressed by the quality of candidates and the weakness of the coalition. By the time the local elections were on, the lack of transparency and unclear policies have resulted in major shif in poles perception again of the 'ikhlaastherikan' of this government

  12. Eythi-Meethi,

    You do not believe PA and DRP are punching above their weight in the Parliament?

    Your points are correct, voter apathy, weakness of coalition etc. but the main factors for them having such representation in the parliament are-

    - Lack of civic understanding among the population.
    - DRP-PA, especially PA's shrewd strategy of choosing small islands/atolls to contest(easier to bribe, play religion card etc)
    - The successful campaign in convincing people on the fence that it is the job of the opposition to oppose govt policies (no matter what).
    - Their success in convincing many people that a majority MDP parliament would mean the end of "Thin Baaru Vakifvun"

    This is the reason why they have any seats in the parliament. It's going to be hard to convince the hard core DRP-PA support base, because their reasons for choosing DRP are not based on logic or understanding of the true situation.

  13. @saif Islam. fully agree with you -its all about money

    'All that matters is who controls what portion of USD1 billion odd dollars we get every year from tourism'

    The country is and would be shaped by few large resort owners. Human rights and democracy is their new PR

  14. Yes Greenback. trying to throw a few names like Huntington and making it look like an academic discourse doesnt change the reality. For those in power the only thing that matters is control of resources. They only disguise their attempts by using nomenclature such as human rights, democracy, islam, sovereignty etc. This of the example of Dr. Ahmed 'janaza' Shaheed. Here is a highly educated man well versed in the concepts of democracy, liberalism, human rights etc. But he was the man how said on BBC Gayoom is the 'father of democracy' and how many times has he changed his political allegience since then? For what? All because he wants to be among the elite who control the USD1 billion i mentioned before.

  15. A critical element of the 'third wave of democrtization' is the transformation of security forces, especiallt that of the police force. The Maldives police was supposedly established as a civil authority as part of the democratization movement. Like many countries in the transition to democracy, Maldives too imported police reforms, but failed to incorporate what American Police reform scholar David Bayley would call 'Democratic Policing'. Instead, a loosley coined term 'community policing' became the bedrock of Maldives police reform movement that neither supported democratic ideals nor crime control measures. Today we hear the need for more powers to police without providing proper justifications for how it will be supervised in a democratic environment. The police chief refuses to go to Parlimentary subcommitees on national security. If democratization is to prevail, the security sector reforms needs to be strictly in line with democratic ideals.

  16. @Rinzy: Anni is not a saint I am aware. But first of all, he is trying to liberalize the economy and also living cheaper (in Muleeage' rather thah Theemuge') to try and save money for the country, so he is doing his best for the economy in a bad situation which is not his fault. After all, the ex-regime's ppl owe billions, ask them to pay back money they owe you and you will all be rich. SO that one you can blame on the opposition.

    On gangstersand and fear, well, the judiciary who refuses to convict the hardcore bad guys and druggies are Maumoon's appointees, and President's Judicial Services member is fighting to end all that, so again, the opp. are stating that it is the fault of Anni, as he is the President he should deal with it. MDP tried to bring in serious reform to control gangsters, opp. blocked it. So again this is not Anni's fault.

    On the 'nulafa' incident you refer to, (Anni threatening the opposition) Anni was responding to threats. Don't forget a few days before Anni threatened the opposition the opposition made plans to take over the Government by force, performing wudu even in their oaths like proper Mafia. So, in that sense, I agree, ANNI had to show he was tough.

    So, your attempts to paint a bad picture of Anni because of all this is not honest. All these problems are the fault of an opposition who do not want what is best for Maldives, but are willing to make YOu and all other mALDIVIANS SUFFER TO PAINT A BAD PICTURE OF aNNI SO THEY CAN GAIN POWER.

  17. before the m-dives thinks about an effective democracy someone needs to get the Government departments and Police depts. to actually DO something........... j


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