Comment & Analysis: Rotten politics to defend a democratic constitution?

The Jumhooree Party (JP) in January split from the ruling coalition and allied with the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) to “defend the constitution” against what they allege to be President Abdulla Yameen’s repeated constitutional breaches. The new alliance left many confused given the JP’s key role in former President Mohamed Nasheed’s 2012 ouster.

When Haveeru asked Nasheed how he could now trust JP Leader Gasim Ibrahim, he said: “It will be very easy [to understand the alliance] if we talk about interests instead of trust. In the political sphere, nobody should trust the other”.

This statement, I think, perfectly captures the rotten political culture that stands in the way of democratisation in the Maldives. President Nasheed is right. What we have is a political culture where nobody should trust the other. It is indeed a culture where nobody could. “Should” only arises where “could” exists.

It is a culture of extreme opportunism and cynical behavior, established through years of complex, interlocking dependencies fed by corruption, oligarchic money, crime, and patronage. Floor-crossing by elected MPs, some to multiple parties and back in one term, is just one visible aspect of its depth.

But, democracy will not function in the Maldives without a political culture in which we can be confident that the other’s commitment to minimum democratic principles and behaviour will transcend their personal interests.

Sacrifices, compromises, humility

Without this commitment, our only hope is that politicians’ interests and differences always harmonise with democracy. But interests don’t always harmonise with democracy. Substantive differences don’t always benefit from democracy.

Democracy thrives on sacrifices of interests. It requires painful compromises with substantive differences, be they religious or philosophical. And, importantly, democracy derives its sustenance from an ethic of humility.

The ethic of humility decries arrogance, hubris, and bossing around. Democrats dislike treating people as pawns on a chessboard and acting as though one knows all the right moves. That is also why democracy requires honest and robust debate, discussion, and critique.

This is not to say through an opportunistic game of duelling interests, this or that political reform may not happen. It’s also true that in moments of harmony of interests good outcomes could materialise. Sometimes the outcome may not even be what the participants intended.

Democratic failures

The past decade is rife with instances where politicians across the spectrum favored their own interests over democratic process, allowing mistrust, cynicism and opportunism to thrive on.

President Nasheed’s controversial detentions of Gasim and Yameen and the Criminal Court Chief Judge Abdulla Mohamed, during his term are instances of failure of this transcendental commitment to the democratic process. The 2012 coup by the then opposition parties through the security services is the ultimate breach of this commitment.

Jumhooree Party’s contestation of the first round of presidential elections in 2013 without any reasonable grounds and the abuse of the Supreme Court to manipulate the electoral process is another extreme example where “interests” transcended the commitment to democracy.

Now, President Yamin’s turn towards what may be a form of “competitive authoritarianism,” whereby, through legislative manipulation, he now can control an already corrupt judiciary and other independent state institutions, shows his commitment to democracy does not transcend his narrow political interests.

Yamin has succeeded in removing the Chief Justice and perhaps the only just Justice in the Supreme Court through legislative manipulation by his party’s majority in the parliament. This, of course, could help him manipulate the elections in 2018.

Democracy has become ever more elusive.

A combination of institutions and human behaviour

I’m of course not saying politics is for angels. But without a political culture based on certain minimum human behavioural commitments, democracy cannot be the “only game in town”, which, political scientists Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan claim, is a test of democracy’s consolidation.

I think one of Amartya Sen’s important points in The Idea of Justice is also that institutions alone don’t result in justice. Similarly, institutions of democracy — be they perfect constitutions or genuine elections — alone don’t result in democracy.

A people and a political elite that are behaviorally and attitudinally committed to democratic rules and principles are as crucial.

That is also why I am skeptical of the MDP’s claim that the solution to authoritarian turns in our politics is adopting a parliamentary system.

The forgoing analysis is bleak. A democracy survey in the Maldives in 2013 already painted a bleak picture for the country. The survey points to a crisis of public confidence in key democratic institutions and extraordinarily high levels of public cynicism towards politics as compared to other transitional states.

But that same survey also shows there are some reasons to be optimistic.

Youth comprises around 30% of the population. It is these youth groups that tend to gravitate towards democratic values. A political culture based on their empowerment and mobilisation is perhaps how we may achieve and sustain democracy.

Azim Zahir worked at the President’s Office and Transparency Maldives. He has a Masters in Political Science from the University of Sydney.

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