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.

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4 thoughts on “Comment: What led to democratisation of the Maldives?”

  1. Important article. Of course these are all factors of democratization (education, economic growth, international pressure.)

    One other important democratization factor dictators like to down play is resistance.

    An observation one lecturer made was that democracy only comes with resistance.

    Once a dictator understands he will lose power completely without reforms he tries to take ALL of the credit for democracy by saying, THAT was the model, I educated you, I reformed the economy, thank me. It is a way to down play the role of resistance and power, to repress those who resist.

  2. The description of Maldives being easily influenced by International Community because it is a small state was very insightful, thankyou for that.

  3. The comment I made about resistance being important for the democratisation process may not be relevant anymore (as it was ten years ago.) I would never down play the VITAL role of education, modernization, economic growth, international pressure in democratization. It is extremely important that we understand that.

    But my concern is more, the way technocratic rationale CAN be and HAS been used to delay reform unjustly.

    I should give an example of at least one reform a few have discussed to make my point.

    It is argued by technocrats that before you can stop flogging Women, or even speak against flogging of Women from the Majlis, you have to slowly indoctrinate Maldivians into understanding that it is not Islamic in this day and age to literally apply Al-Huddud AS IS for many various reasons.

    We are told the majority of Maldivians will erupt violently if they see their Shariah LAW repressed like that, and destroy the security of everybody.

    So, the technocrats tell us, for at least the next so many years, Women must continue being flogged.

    However, this technocratic rationale is a fear factor preventing liberals from protesting due to fear of extremists. But, according to a survey completely recently, the liberals are in the majority, so the extremists SHOULD be the ones afraid. But, technocratic rationale is being used to prevent any resistance of flogging, it is used to rationalize it away.

  4. @Ben

    Technocratic? You're mistaken - they're just an oppressive police state with a UN peon as the viceroy (for legitimacy purposes - the peaceniks love it when former UN staff talk about peace and stability. But today, they're no different than the toothless League of Nations facing Hitler's aggression.).


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