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]

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12 thoughts on “Comment: Revisiting the Maldives’ transition to democracy”

  1. 30 Years of dictatorship was eliminated with the concerted effort by the people of Maldives and can not give full credit to Nasheed.

    The incident which had happened in the Jail during gayyoom regime was the turning point in our democracy and Nasheed was hiding in UK at this time,

    People like Ibra, Gaasim and other leaders are the people who had guts to come out on the road to protest " Gayyoom". Nasheed was not there ?

    Majority of Maldivian tried very hard to remove gayyoom from power in 2008 . Sadly, the country had moved even back ward in democracy the during 3 Nasheed years .

    Nasheed used democracy just as a tool and ran the country like a dictators and following are the facts.

    1. Parliament enact a bill to free the media and to form a public broadcasting cooperation to mange TVM and other government news media. Nasheed gave a blind eye and ignore the bill and took the public medial as his own. Worse than even Gayyoom where our constitution does not demand him such free media.
    2. Locking up the supreme court.
    3. GMR contract.
    4. Removal of MPs appointed by the President and and reappointment of new Mps. This is completely illegal.
    5. Only MDP member's interests were protected and rest of the people were ignored. But he was elected as the president of the country not as the president of MDP?
    6. arbitrary arrest of political leaders and Judges are in violation of the constitution . But this dictator did to try to scare the people. No democratic leader will do that.

    These are few just show that he was not a democratic leader but rather was a dictator.

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  2. One of the most significant factors that this article does not account for is the impact of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, and the subsequent international pressure that the government faced as it sought foreign aid to rebuild the country.
    The government's hand was forced in bringing about the 'democratic' changes that it did due both to pressure from the domestic opposition, as well as international actors.

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  3. @kuribee just one thing : anybody who defenses jChief judge of Crimial Court is just insane.
    He is the Capo di tutti Capi of the judiciary in Maldives, we all know.
    I take just one thing : he, Ablow, made reenact, TWO kids, their sexual abuse in front of the whole court and the perpetrator himself.
    THAT only justifies to dump that judge wherever.

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  4. The role of real power brokers in Maldives such as big businesses are not mentioned. That makes write up hollow

    Nasheed came to power not because he was well liked. The power brokers felt an additional term for thier loyal puppy (maumoon) was too much after 30 years !

    Don't know if mr. Huntington is aware of such. Things

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  5. The only way true democracy will ever find a place here is to ban the word "Islam" from the mouth of politicians! That word should not be used in any political propaganda.

    Why do I say this? After all, aren't we all Muslims and doesn't Islam covers all aspects of our life? I'm saying that precisely because of the fact Islam already covers everything and it's totally inappropriate for politicians to "appropriate" Islam! The lowest common denominator we all have is Islam. That's a given.

    This levels the playing field and politicians will have to try harder to convince people that they actually have ANY policies at all and that they are not just full of "hot air". I hope fellow citizens vote wisely in this election and not be swayed by the empty promises and rhetoric of certain politicians.

    Think of it this way. If someone or their "party" had 30 years and 6 chances to do something and never did it, why would you trust them to do any better now? There's no need for rocket science or meta-physics to analyze that one!

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  6. @"kuribee" conveniently drops the fact that ol' Anni was in prison during the War years. Now how can a man held in solitary confinement by a tyranny attend a protest?

    I recommend you go back to Ruder Finn and retake your 'propaganda 101' exam
    .

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  7. Fascinating insight. So true: freedom is never given. It is taken through years of resistance by those fighting for it. Only when the powers that be have lost power, they say, we give freedom, as though it is really a generous gift from the powerful.

    Only when even the powerful realise the importance of freedom for all, will they make the sacrifices to allow it.

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  8. Islam is used to brain wash the common person. People listen to the rubbish but they dont believe them anymore. For all these politicians are indirectly insulting the public by saying our faith is weak. Come on we are Muslims and will remain as Muslims.Presidents come and go our faith will remain the same.

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  9. I also find it some what illlogocal that western European or Anglo democratic therory is stright way applied to the Maldives. England UK and by proxy the Anglo colonies are has years of a social system that developed to be meritrocratic and more individualistic.Maldives is still very nepotistic, therefore the buisness olgarchy is nepotistic. Not to mention island or regionalism comes into play too.

    Maldives may have seen a small shift away from ultra nepotistic politics in the recent years, but its a majore factor still.

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  10. Ahmed Hamdhan's article under the title of Revisiting the Maldivian transition to democracy is a good article in its own genre. We have had many articles of that genre published in the Online newspaper Minivannews since it was founded.

    It is an attempt to analyse the success and failure of an emergent democratic order in the Maldives ( particularly in its capital island of Male) in the 20th century.

    It is also an attempt to help Mohamed Nasheed personally and his MDP as a political party. In supporting Nasheed and MDP, Minivannews also does a service to the Maldives.

    There is a student-teacher relationship between Maldives and Egypt. The fall of Mubarak, the role of the military in politics, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, the first free election in Egypt, the one year tenure of President Mursi, his overthrow, and everything that have followed since, should help the Maldive-watchers to get a deeper understanding of the dilemma facing the political Maldives today.

    The dilemma is that we have not yet succeeded in overthrowing and replacing the autocratic and feudal regime of President Gayoom. We are back to where we stated.

    Come the 7th of September and the new presidential election, what is going to happen?

    I do not want Gayoom back, or anything to do with him back. I do not want Gasim as president either. I have reservations against some other high profile candidates too.

    I like Mohamed Nasheed and his MDP on the basis of their narrative and rhetoric.But narrsative and rhetoric may not be enough to convince Kuribe and the like.

    I think there will be a free and fair election. We must accept the outcome of the presidential election. In a democracy there are winners as well as losers. We must accept the outcome, whatever it is, and work together to bring progress to the country- to the whole country.

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  11. I also have reservations against Nasheed for his arrogance and dictatorial policies.

    However, I will accept the outcome of the vote and majority of the people will accept the decision by the majority.

    Majority of the people will say no to Fili Fidi Nasheed".

    Even if this idiot is being elected, I will respect him as the president but my vote will never be given to him.

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