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]


Maldives’ future “a cycle of failed governments”: report

The most likely short-term political future of the Maldives is a cycle of failed governments, according to a report produced by local NGO the Raajje Foundation, and supported by the UNDP and the US State Department.

“The Maldives finds itself at a critical juncture in its political development. The high hopes for the country after the new Constitution and first ever democratic election in 2008 have been tempered by the events of February 2012, in which President Nasheed resigned from office under claims of duress following weeks of public protests and increasing political tension,” writes Professor Tom Ginsburg from the University of Chicago Law School.

“This has led some observers to consider Maldives as a case of a broken transition to democracy, and there is growing disagreement among Maldivian commentators on what might the best or most desirable route forward.”

Democratic development in the Maldives is hampered by challenging conditions, including “a political culture that emphasises recrimination over reconciliation, a thin inchoate civil society, nascent higher education, limited transparency, a long tradition of patronage, massive wealth inequalities, difficult population demographics, weak politicised institutions, distorted labor market, and a narrow economy vulnerable to external shocks,” states Ginsburg.

“At the same time, the country is also confronted with major economic and social problems, such as the prospect of national insolvency and a young generation wracked by drug abuse, that would challenge much stronger states and more institutionally developed societies. This all renders the current moment one of very high stakes.”

The report documents an incendiary background for future political upheaval, noting that the 40 percent of the Maldives’ population aged under 21 are “not being integrated into traditional social and economic structures.”

Resulting issues included widespread youth delinquency and heroin addiction, affecting as much as eight percent of the population, the report notes.

“There are also other unstudied issues such as the slum-like overcrowding in the capital, increasing religious extremism, and a large illegal immigrant population, many of whom are believed to be trafficked as part of an organised racket in which the state seems either complicit or unable to control. Expectations are high but government capacity to deliver is low and a looming budget financing crisis means that there is very little room to maneuver,” it adds.

Researching such problems from the outside is difficult, Ginsburg writes, due to state obfuscation “by endlessly referring enquiries from one government office to another. Scholarship, policy analysis, and social data on the Maldives are almost nonexistent. It has for many been a very difficult country to learn about.”

“There is also very limited capacity in the Maldives for policy analysis outside a very few select government ministries. Indeed, there does not seem to be a culture of reasoned justification but rather any effort to provide a neutral perspective is assumed to be and is viewed as politically partisan.”

The report analyses the economic crisis facing the country, noting that ballooning public expenditure had reached the point where 10 percent of the population is employed by the government, and commented on the lack of an independent pay commission to prevent parliament and other commissions from effectively raising their own salaries to those akin to developed countries.

Independent commissions were in a position where they faced either accusations of selective enforcement based on politicisation, “or focused on fact-finding and other activities to keep them out of the heated political conflicts of the day.”

The Judicial Services Commission (JSC)’s mission to ensure the new judiciary was was clean, competent, and protected from political influence, “has sadly gone unfulfilled.”

“The courts have essentially been able to capture the JSC so as to ensure that the old judiciary remained in place under the new constitutional order,” writes Ginsburg.

“While the 2008 Constitution does include a provision allowing for five year terms for current judges before appointing them for a life term till the age of 70, presumably to allow some transition from the old regime, it is now not clear this provision will be exercised without some dramatic and unexpected change in circumstances.”

A raft of new civil society organisations which sprang up after 2008 were meanwhile accused of being “aligned with various political agendas”, while “a few organisations have obtained an effective chokehold on international funding and support, inhibiting the overall growth and competence of the sector.”

Three scenarios

Against this backdrop – “a cascade of serious structural weaknesses that undermine continued democratic development” – the report outlines three potential scenarios for the country: a cycle of failed governments; dominance of one hegemonic faction; and an eventual move towards constitutional democracy.

Scenario one: Cycle of failed governments

This scenario would be most likely to result ”if the current government pursues its legal case against former President Nasheed in a shortsighted and headstrong manner, or if Nasheed escalates conflict to try to ‘overthrow the government’,” Ginsburg writes.

In this scenario – the most likely – “personalities rather than policy differences continue to define the party system and alliances of political aspirants shift back and forth among two or three factions competing to secure access to state resources.

“These personalities, when in government, will therefore always have the incentive to stymie critically needed reforms for fear of cutting down the very patronage networks that sustain them and allowing their opponents to promise to restore this largess.

“In this scenario, true national leadership becomes the casualty. No one will be willing to take the tough decisions to put through the needed legislation, undertake essential bureaucratic rationalisation, and get the government on a proper fiscal footing. One government after another will find itself unable to do what is required in order to break through the cycle of repeated failure.”

With the state paralysed, “There will be almost no chance for the unanimous consensus required to make the constitutional changes needed to reintroduce rigorous judicial accountability or even rewind the country back to its transitional period.

“Given the politically weak bargaining power of the general public, and the large and still growing youth demographic in particular, radical ideologies and charismatic anti-establishment figures may become more popular with a frustrated but disempowered population,” Ginsburg predicts.

Scenario two: Dominance of a hegemonic faction

“Some already talk openly about a ‘Singapore option’ in which a single political party takes leadership and empowers a technocratic state apparatus to provide for the public good,” writes Ginsburg.

“The permanent collapse or suppression of one faction to another does not seem likely to occur without a use of force which would put Maldives in clear violation of its treaty obligations and basic international norms. Consequently, efforts to attain hegemonic control would actually likely lead to an even more adversarial version of the cycle of failed governments scenario in a way that is perhaps reminiscent of Maldives’ present situation,” he warns.

“With a still politically disempowered public unable to truly hold government to account, this scenario may similarly also lead citizens to look to more radicalised religious and non-establishment actors who claim to offer more equitable alternatives to the status-quo.”

Cautioning against comparisons with Singapore, the report notes that the Maldives “is coming from a completely different context and, more significantly, does not have a potential leader who could command the respect that Lee Kuan Yew earned in Singapore.

“Pursuing a strategy premised on the promise of enlightened leadership is thus risky and likely to fall back into a cycle of failed governments. It is also what the Maldives had sought to move away from in the first place by not supporting a continuation of its prior tradition of autocratic governance.”

Scenario three: Constitutional democracy

The most internationally-desirable forecast for the Maldives “is also the least likely”, writes Ginsburg.

“This would involve potential alternation in power among political groups, a focus on policies as the basis for political decision-making, along with a deep infrastructure to support the development and implementation of policies, significant constraints on extra-constitutional governmental action, and a sense of political maturity that has heretofore been lacking,” he states.

The report outlines a number of recommendations to achieve this scenario, particularly constitutional education to encourage the kind of public pressure “that ensures that politicians and government agents comply with the orders of courts, independent agencies and the intent of the Constitution.

“Ignorance of the public on their own Constitution is by far the most obvious gap within the Maldives’ democratic transition,” the report suggests.

In terms of judicial reform, “There must be mechanisms to ensure that the judges obey the law and apply it consistently. there are reasons for concern about the current situation, in which the legal framework is underdeveloped and the Supreme Court has foreclosed many of the extant channels of ensuring accountability.”

Ginsburg proposes a more active and independent, self-regulating bar association, with lawyers freed from the requirement to be registered through the attorney general’s office. He notes that the International Bar Association “has repeatedly offered its assistance”, but suggests that the prospect is unlikely “given the politicisation of the various groups who would have come together for such a purpose.”

Programs such as citizen-initiated ‘court-watch’ initiatives, common in other countries, were hampered by the lack of open courtrooms. Moreover, “rules squelching discussion of court decisions form a major barrier to this or any other channel of accountability.”

The report proposes the use of laymen in adjudication, with four to five citizens “sitting with two to three judges in serious criminal cases such as murder.” However, “the challenges of implementing such a system in the Maldives with its dense network of family ties should not be underestimated.”

The report cautions that donors supporting the development of judicial capacity in the Maldives “must tie this to developing enhanced mechanisms of accountability.”

Read the report