Comment: Maldives’ future more optimistic than Ginsburg scenarios

Professor Tom Ginsburg’s analysis of the prospects for a democratic Maldives (written August 2012) is unjustifiably pessimistic. This letter outlines why an analysis more optimistic in its conclusions is warranted.

Professor Ginsburg considers the consolidation of constitutional democracy the least likely outcome, with either a series of ‘failed governments’ or domination by a hegemonic faction as more likely. This letter does not dispute that the two less appealing scenarios are real possibilities, nor that that bringing about a more democratic politics will require great effort. However, as is undoubtedly obvious to the reader, following any path – irrespective of where it may lead – is not going to be easy at this delicate moment of Maldivian history.

This letter contends that Professor Ginsburg’s analysis is flawed in the following ways: 1) failing to recognise fully the implications of the 2008 elections and the resulting change in governance, 2) the factors that he deems adverse to democracy are either factors that assist a democratic transition or are neutral, and 3) expecting too much progress in too short a time.

First: political scientists agree that a country is not a democratic one until two alternations of power have been achieved by democratic means. The October 2008 elections qualify as the first. 7 February 2012 does not qualify as the second. However, the 2008 election represents a democratic opening. The high rate of voting (83 percent, reported by Minivan News) indicated a politically active and engaged population, as do more recent collective actions — including party activity and street demonstrations. The fact that the Maldivian people managed to achieve that democratic opening, after decades without democratic, or any other meaningful, political participation speaks volumes about their resourcefulness and competence.

A critical mass of the population of Male’ (at least) is as politically engaged now as it was then, and any analyst would only at their peril underestimate the potential of this population to surprise. At the level of government, the qualitative leap in administrative steering and standards of policy research, design and implementation in evidence beginning in 2008 shows that better – although still imperfect — government is certainly possible in the Maldives.

Furthermore, social mobilisation and popular participation in the campaigns of 2008 and thereafter belie Ginsburg’s assessment that civil society is ‘inchoate.’ Civil society in the Maldives may not express itself as frequently in written form as Professor Ginsburg expects, but it is no less significant and politically effective for its orality, and for its active rather than discursive manifestations.

Second: the Maldivian economy does suffer from a variety of vulnerabilities; weaknesses which have increased since the writing of the consultation paper. Following over three decades of accelerated development, and leaps in human development indicators, the Maldives achieved its status as a middle income country in 2004.

Under the Nasheed administration, it posted real GDP growth of 9.9 percent in 2010 and 8.3 percent in 2011 (World Bank). Mr Nasheed, as Professor Ginsburg recognises, introduced tax reforms (including a tourism goods and services tax) that improved medium-term fiscal sustainability, even as Mr Nasheed was also correct in diagnosing the serious problems posed by public debt/spending, and by an unsustainably large and inefficient bureaucracy.

In the regional context of South Asia, the Maldives is by a wide margin the wealthiest country, with a GNI per capita of US$5,721 (World Bank). India, which is a democracy of long-standing, has a GNI per capita of only US$1,410. Even considering foreign workers and the rentier aspects of the Maldivian economy, the Maldives possesses (proportionately) greater ability to attract foreign currency than any other country in the region; this capacity can afford some insulation against the vicissitudes of the global economy. Recent reductions in poverty, and nascent efforts at developing research capacity and higher education show that even in turbulent times the Maldivian state is capable of harnessing the natural and economic assets of the country for collective benefit.

Ginsburg alludes to “slum-like overcrowding in the capital.” The comparison with India again is apt; if Male’ appears to be a slum, it is apparent that he is unfamiliar with the ‘slums’ and ‘overcrowding’ of any city of similar size in that democratic country to the north, India.

Ginsburg cites the involvement of external actors in Maldivian politics, as something ostensibly diminishing the prospects for democracy. While foreign intervention is no doubt (and perhaps understandably) unpopular, it is far from evident how it will prevent democratization. In fact, Ginsburg himself alludes to contrary evidence, acknowledging that external actors contributed both to the former President Maumoon Gayoom’s decision to acquiesce to the democratic opening, and in the drafting of many laudable aspects of the current constitution.

The youth of the Maldives are an asset – not a liability. 99 percent literacy (according to the Commonwealth Secretariat), and the internet connectivity (particularly of youth, as Ginsburg observes), and the involvement of young people in the democratic opening of 2008 demonstrate that they constitute a source of hope, rather than a demographic of despair. Ginsburg does not explain or support the statement that they are “not being adequately integrated into the traditional social and economic structures.” Furthermore, their detachment from traditional social structures could equally well be a reason to anticipate the continuing dynamism and political potency of Maldivian youth.

Third, Professor Ginsburg appears to expect a vigorous, flawless liberal democracy to have been born of a wholly autocratic womb. A sound administrative legal code, the institutionalisation of parliament, an independent, skillful judiciary – these are all extremely unrealistic demands to make of a country that only four years ago staged its first competitive election.

Ginsburg consistently overlooks the necessarily incremental nature of political development following (any) regime change; he underestimates the time needed, and the setbacks that even a country in otherwise ideal circumstances will invariably encounter. He also overstates the immediate importance of the judiciary and legal culture at the expense of social movements and electoral contestation; the lesson in constitutionalism which he prescribes is of rather less moment than preparing for the upcoming election. The judiciary that is in place now and that likely will be in place during the upcoming electoral cycle is arguably no more flawed than that which was in place in the last (free and fair) national election, in 2008.

In conclusion: political scientists distinguish structure and agency. Structure includes things like the economy, institutions, geography and demography. The things that are essentially set, and not easily or quickly altered. Agency on the other hand, is the human element. It is the human will: human ingenuity, determination, and the capacity to surprise.

Professor Ginsburg has taken up only the first of these two: the structure. An analysis based on an understanding of the Maldivian people would not so readily discount the chance of a new, and a more inclusive and participatory, Maldivian politics.

Scott Morrison is a political scientist (Columbia University 2004 PhD)

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]


4 thoughts on “Comment: Maldives’ future more optimistic than Ginsburg scenarios”

  1. Coherent and heartening.
    One must never overlook the power of the citizenry.
    Thank you for your insightful critique, Mr Morrison.

  2. Insightful and honest. In my opinion Mr.Scott Morrison has a fairly good understanding of the Maldives and it's people.

  3. I imagine everyone truly hopes that there are grounds for optimism in the Maldives and constitutional democracy will be achieved. I am sure even Professor Ginsburg would not desire it to be otherwise. Having read the report and this opinion though, I think the Morrison may however have misunderstood Ginsburg.

    First, Morrison says the implications of 2008 elections were not recognized but in my reading the report does not seem to deny the significance of the 2008 elections but focuses on how things have unfolded since the major achievement of the 2008 elections. I am sure Morrison would acknowledge that elections by themselves don’t constitute a constitutional democracy and it is not clear that the next elections in Maldives will be free and fair, and if vote buying is considered it is not entirely clear that the elections since 2008 were really all that free and fair either.

    Second, Morrison lists a number of factors identified in the report he says do not in fact actually undermine democratic development. But these points appear to be misconstrued. The report does not say the youth are a liability, only that they are alienated and this is in part driving the pressure for political change. The report does not cite the involvement of external actors as something ostensibly diminishing the prospects of democracy. To the contrary, Ginsburg says that external actors, such as Morrison, play an outsizided role in the Maldives and can perform helpful functions which can be especially important for small states with limited human resources.

    On matter of GDP per-capita, many others observe that the tragedy of the Maldives becoming a middle-income country is that it is a consequence not of a rise of general incomes but a handful of individual resort owners personally holding millions of dollars that are not subject to redistribution. The ordinary Maldivian has not experienced the rise in a standard of living that would be expected for a country moving into this income bracket. Rather, the ordinary Maldivian citizen will pay all of the additional costs of being a middle-income country, such as loss of international development assistance, but receive none of the benefits.

    As for Male’ not having slum like conditions, May I suggest Morrison takes an opportunity to visit the homes of ordinary Maldivians in Male’, such as taxi drivers, and see how they live. For a great many, it is not rooms per family but families per room. The immediate impression of the Male’ often belies the reality in which beggars go from house to house rather than sit on street corners and families live in squatter conditions, without land title and with with their children experiencing almost daily contact with drug dealers.

    Furthermore, the fact is the government does not do policy research in the sense of developing and researching options to be assessed against a set of desired criteria that were endorsed by an electorate. What is called policy has been just the implementation of the President’s personal directives. This did not magically change in 2008 and even today policy not much more to it than the mind of an individual decision maker who computes all the pros, cons and issues all by themselves. Policy, its generation and undertaking, is unfortunately in no measure qualitatively different since the first multi-party election.

    Third, the report on my reading does not expect a fully-formed democracy to have emerged, but attempts to outline the steps requires to get to a stable democratic outcome. This looks intractable because currently political actors obtain votes and support through the distribution of state resources, but the state cannot afford this largess and is currently living off emergency loans and handouts which cannot continue indefinitely. It is a national ponzi scheme which has to collapse as soon as the government cannot get further credit.

    As for overstating the role of the judiciary, will Morrison feel that the role of the judiciary is of little consequence at this stage of democratic development when it prohibits Mohamed Nasheed from contesting in the next election? The judiciary was much weaker in 2008 when it was still in the transition period and they had not had a chance to appoint themselves for life.

    On the final point about human agency, the report actually seems to concur that it is the Maldivian people that ultimately have to take the initiative and this could best be supported through constitutional awareness. This would be an attempt to have a citizenry that would drive the process in the direction of constitutional democracy. Perhaps constitutional awareness could be seen as enabling this agency and thus being the best means to ensure the integrity of the next election and a successful democratic transition.

  4. Scott Morrison ought to have read a thing or two about the Maldives before he decided to write such shallow article.


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