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)

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