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.

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]


US government pledges US$9.7 million for Maldives climate change adaptation, election preparations

The United States government has pledged US$9.7 million (MVR 149 million) to the Maldives as technical assistance for climate change adaptation and election preparations.

The memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the two nations was signed yesterday afternoon (July 7) by the Maldives Ministry of Foreign Affairs Ambassador-at-large Abdul Azeez Yoosuf and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Acting Mission Director Todd Sorenson.

The United States Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives Michele J Sison highlighted the importance of the agreement during the American Embassy’s Independence Day reception held last night (July 7) in Male’.

“The MoU will allow us to expand and enhance our bilateral cooperation, it is a truly special day… [it is my] sincere hope that the many ties that bind our two nations will grow ever stronger,” Sison stated.

Under the MoU, USAID will provide US$7.2 million for a global climate change adaptation project, and US$2.5 million as technical assistance for election preparations.

The Ambassador highlighted the importance of consolidating democracy and promoting the integrity of the electoral process prior to the September 7 presidential elections as the impetus for the US working with Maldivian partners to prepare for elections. One of the new programs covered under the MOU, through USAID, was launched by the U.S.-based International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES).

“These efforts will promote the integrity of the electoral process in Maldives in advance of the September 2013 presidential elections, but also support efforts aimed at the local council and parliamentary elections which are to follow [in 2014],” said Sison.

“The US has urged all parties all actors here to work together to chart a positive way forward that respects the Maldivian constitution, Maldivian democratic institutions, human rights and the will of the Maldivian people,” she continued.

“As such, we’ve called on all sides here to work closely together to ensure the elections in Maldives are free, fair, transparent, credible and inclusive and that the results are accepted by all stakeholders,” she added.

The US government in partnership with the UN is also “actively supporting” a small grants program for Maldivian civil society.

“Democracy – good governance – is not just about elections it’s about the process of governance and the interaction between the government and the people,” noted Sison. “Which is why… we are looking to support projects to enhance the democratic space and to effectively engage civil society organisations in promoting good governance.”

“The US is proud to be supporting Maldivian efforts to strengthen civil society and consolidate the democratic transition,” she added.

The Ambassador also reflected on the founding of the United States, the evolution of democracy within the country over the last 237 years, and the democratisation process in the Maldives. She noted the personal responsibility of citizens to strive toward a more perfect union by pushing forward, speaking out when there is injustice, and advocating for those who cannot advocate for themselves, as President Barack Obama noted in a 2008 presidential campaign speech.

“I thought of those words – both of our founding fathers and of President Obama – as I thought about the Maldives, because in the coming weeks and months ahead, reflecting the vibrancy of Maldivian institutions, the Maldivian people will once again make their voices heard in a democratic process,” said Sison.

The American Embassy’s other current initiatives include “robust USAID projects” aimed at increasing Maldivian capacity to cope with the impact of climate change and improving water security. USAID is also working with the Maldivian government to identify additional areas of cooperation related to climate change adaptation.

The US is also becoming “increasingly active” in the Maldivian economic and commercial sector.

“I’m happy to report that a number of other US companies are looking to expand their operations here, their presence and investment in the Maldivian economy,” noted Sison.

Furthermore, US initiatives have also been extend to the education sector with the “Access English Language” teaching program – with programs in Male’, Addu City, and Kulhudhuffushi in Haa Dhaal Atoll – and “Access Microscholarship”.

“The goal of these english language enrichment microschoarlips is to enable Maldivian secondary school students to pursue higher education and to increase their employment opportunities – we hope – in the job market,” Sison explained.

She also noted that US is “very proud” that the cooperation, joint exercises, and training endeavours conducted with the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) and the Maldives Police Service remain “very strong and robust”.

“The US knows that all of you are as committed as we are to the prosperity of Maldives, to the democracy of Maldives, and to the well being of Maldives. We hope to work together with you in a way that will inspire and benefit future generations of young Maldivians,” the ambassador concluded.

Maldives’ Minister of Defence Mohamed Nazim assured the attendees of the US Embassy’s independence day event – who included the Indian High Commissioner Rajeev Shahare, various UN agency officials, and Maldivian government ministers – that the government of Maldives was committed to ensuring elections were “free, fair and competitive”.

“Exactly two months from today maldives will vote in a historic election to elect a president,” said Nazim.

“Free and fair elections are the strongest and most visible manifestations of a country’s democratic development. The Maldives remains committed to moving forward to consolidating democracy,” he stated. “We are continuing to further strengthen our democratic institutions.”

“We are grateful to the United States for the Maldives election program 2013-14 which will contribute profoundly to strengthen the capacity of state institutions and civil society organisations in preparing for the presidential elections,” he added.

Nazim also highlighted other “key global issues of mutual concern” both governments and working closely on, particularly in the areas of national defence, promoting democracy and the respect of fundamental human rights, as well as climate change adaptation.

“The Maldives-US defence cooperation which has been vital in enhancing our national defence capabilities,” he noted.

“Climate change is an existential threat to the Maldives. As a low-lying state, no country is more vulnerable and none is more committed to increasing investments in renewable energy,” said Nazim. “I salute President Obama for his recent initiative aimed at finding a global solution to the question of climate change.”

“Climate change is too critical an issue to be left unaddressed. We need to find solutions and be ready to make hard decisions and hard choices,” he added.

“The relationship is based on a solid foundation of friendship, shared beliefs, and mutual respect. The US continues to be a close partner of Maldives through diverse spheres and greatly contributes toward the socio-economic development of the country,” Nazim concluded.


Comment: The mixed story of the rise of Islamism in the Maldives

One of the many lessons of the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s magisterial book, A Secular Age, is how religion continues to exist and continues to be relevant.

The relevance is not only limited to religion’s potential for creating identity and meaning in life.

Religion’s relevance also lies in the moral and epistemological limitations of the virulent forms of atheistic exclusive humanism and hardcore naturalistic ‘science’ that Richard Dawkins, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and their ilk seem to be promoting.

Religion’s potential for solidarity and taking the cause of justice and vulnerable forms of life, is as relevant as ever.

Its potential for an ultimate explanation against an unfounded scientific reductionism cannot be blindly and arrogantly dismissed.

Rise of Islamism and electoral democracy

During the last seven or so years, coinciding with (or in response to) democratisation, the most spectacular religious phenomenon in the Maldives is the rise of Islamism. At least twelve Islamic/Islamist NGOs were registered between 2004-2010. Prior to 2004, there were no more than three organisations with the specific goal of religion.

But re-Islamisation led by Islamism itself should not be taken as alarming for at least ‘electoral democracy’.

If popular participation in politics can be an indication of support for democracy, the voter turnout in February 2011’s local elections stood at around 70%, which is comparable to past turnouts for parliamentary elections. Equally important, Islamist Adalath Party fared quite badly in all three elections since 2008.

However, re-Islamisation seems to have had, and will continue to have, mixed results for the society and politics.

Questioning religion

As late as the mid-1970s, ethnographic research in the Maldives could conclude that Islam of the people was largely limited to ‘washing, praying and fasting’.

What this means can best be contrasted by describing what James Piscatori and Eickelman call ‘objectification of Muslim consciousness’. They explain that this is ‘the process whereby basic questions come to the fore in the consciousness of large numbers of believers’.

This process has become a salient feature of all Muslim societies. Similarly, this growing objectification of consciousness, largely over the past decade, became the most important religious development in the Maldives. Its main feature includes fragmentation and pluralization of religious discourses.

For sociologists like Jose Casanova this could ultimately mean an Islamic aggiornamento, or a sort of reform that took place in the Second Vatican when Catholicism finally endorsed democracy and human rights in the 1970s. But should we be so optimistic?

Judging from data and people’s comments, often here on Minivan News, it would be hard for some of us in the Maldives to see any positives from objectification of our religious consciousness.

Indeed, in the Maldives what we have seen is a sort of reflexive re-Islamisation: through responding to the terms of alternative discourses (e.g. democracy and human rights) and processes of global modernity, the society seems to be undergoing a new re-traditionalization.

Mixed Results of Islamism

We could observe two parallel processes led by Islamism in the Maldives. It seems to be a striking reversal of what had happened since the 1970s.

First, there is an attempt at de-secularising the actual community. The most obvious example is public piety such as the Muslim veil.

But there is also an attempt at re-Islamising the functional spheres like the economy. Islamic banking or riba-free business is a case in point.

Call for re-Islamising the national curriculum, call against music and entertainment, and rise in ‘creationism’ pseudo-science, are important examples too.

Perhaps a more important example is greater de-privatisation of religion: Islamist organizations and Islamist media outlets have proliferated in the public sphere. Their influence in the political society and the state has increased (e.g., a religious ministry led by Islamists).

But here is the other side of the picture. Islamist attempts at ‘rationalisation’ and ‘objectification’, or in short ‘purification’ of the society, seem to have mixed results for the dominant national consciousness.

The powerful motif of a ‘100% Muslim nation’ may no longer serve as a taken-for-granted, internalised background. It may no longer be a largely unconscious sacralised background understanding of the nation.

The signs of this change could already be seen from the increased sarcastic deployment of ‘sattain satta muslim qaum’ (e.g., ‘are we really a 100% Muslim nation?’), especially by Islamists to decry the alleged failure of officials to make the society ‘Islamic enough’.

If this is so, there is not only de-secularisation. There is a sort of ‘secularisation’ taking place too. This is a secularisation of the imagined community, of the taken-for-granted national consciousness. Ironically, reflexive re-Islamisation is driving this secularisation.

Now, why does this matter? Here is one reason why it matters.

Freedom of religion

This sort of secularisation of the national consciousness seems to be a condition of effective religious liberty. Even if political secularism was to be enshrined in the Constitution, freedom of religion might not be effective without this sort of secularisation of the ‘imagined community’.

The poignant suicide of a young man, possibly because he felt he betrayed his ‘comrades-in-identity’ (i.e. the rest of us Muslims) is a case in point. His desperate email is telling: ‘Maldivians are proud of their religious homogeneity and I am learning the hard way that there is no place for non-Muslim Maldivians in this society.’

One cannot only legally be non-Muslim; but more importantly such a person may be dismissed as unworthy. If this is so, political secularism itself may not be a sufficient condition of liberty without secularisation now seemingly driven by reflexive re-Islamisation. (Here then is also a lesson for the arrogant global (i.e. the US) project of bringing freedom of religion to the world.)

Awareness of the Other

If the above interpretation is correct, we could increasingly experience these phenomena:

i) Through objectification of the taken-for-granted national consciousness, an increased awareness of the existence of some fellow Maldivians with different worldviews and faiths.

ii) Through a process of de-secularisation of the actual community, intense reflexive and political bulwarks (especially by Islamists) against this cross-pressured awareness.

I think both of these things are taking place.

Political Reconciliation of the Cross-Pressure

How we finally politically reconcile this awareness is the ultimate condition of the possibility or impossibility for democracy – and therefore equality, liberty, fraternity – in this over two-millennia-old country.

This is not a place for advocacy. But for this political reconciliation, a necessary, but not sufficient, condition is a dose of humility from the full political and social spectrum.

As a colleague at the government once pointed out, as a first step, the government needs to get over with its ‘hubris’ of going it alone.

Azim Zahir has a BA in Philosophy and Politics and is completing his MA degree at the University of Sydney.

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: 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]