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.

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