Paradise Lost: Has Democracy Gone To Hell In The Maldives?

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On February 7th 2012, Mohamed Nasheed, Maldives’ first ever democratically elected president was deposed from his post after a coup led by his predecessor Maumon Abdul Gayoom forced him to resign at gunpoint. What are the implications of Nasheed’s resignations to the Maldives, as well as to democracy in general?

On February 7th 2012, Mohamed Nasheed, Maldives’ first ever democratically elected president was deposed from his post after a coup led by his predecessor Maumon Abdul Gayoom forced him to resign at gunpoint. What are the implications of Nasheed’s resignations to the Maldives, as well as to democracy in general?

Democracy, as Samuel P. Huntington once famously put it, often comes in waves. According to Huntington’s analysis, countries can be over-swept by democratic ideals during one such wave; and a political transition might occur – transforming the government from an authoritarian to a democratic one.

Yet, as Huntington would later note, the waves of democracy are often followed by “reverse waves” as well. In a reverse wave, a newly democratic country could potentially revert back to its authoritarian ways, especially if the remnants of the old regime attempt to rear up their ugly heads once again.

Former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed learnt this lesson the hard way. Less than four years after becoming the first democratically elected president of the Maldives, Nasheed was swept out of power on February 7th 2012 by a coup – led by his predecessor Maumon Abdul Gayoom.

Gayoom, and his associates, had apparently forced Nasheed to resign at gunpoint, with Nasheed’s vice president Mohamed Waheed Hassan – who Nasheed has now accused of being complicit with Gayoom’s scheme – installed as president on that day itself.

Despite the dramatic manner of Nasheed’s departure, the incident could barely rival the scenes in his country soon after his resignation. According to Minivan News, an independent news site from the Maldives, hundreds of Nasheed’s supporters were quickly rounded up by the Maldivian police following Nasheed’s resignation. EconomyWatch also managed to obtain a document, with the names and details of 172 detainees, that speaks of how numerous individuals had been arrested at their own homes while sleeping or having a meal with their family members, while a number of arrestees were also severely beaten and mistreated – with one such individual having been reportedly beaten up front in front of his 11-year old sister.

“They were beating old women with batons. It was just like the old days,” said a Minivan News reporter, who was injured himself following what he described was a baton charge by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s “starforce” officers.

Watch Brutal Crackdown on MDP Protest:

Another Day In Paradise

These violent scenes were a stark contrast to a year ago, when a young and upbeat Nasheed arrived in Delhi for a conference on promoting liberal governance in South Asia. During the conference, Nasheed expressed optimism on his country’s democratic process.

“We are in the process of consolidating our democracy,” said a cheerful Nasheed, as quoted by the Economist. Commenting on the Arab Spring, Nasheed also expressed confidence that his country could soon become a model for other Islamic states in adopting democracy.

“We are a 100 percent Muslim country. We feel if democracy can survive in the Maldives, it can survive in other Islamic countries.”

[quote]“Islam and democracy are not in conflict,” opined Nasheed.[/quote]

Related: Premature Speculation: The Arab Spring Cannot Be Considered as Democracy’s Fourth Wave. Yet.

Related: Sorry Dr Friedman, You Are Wrong – the Middle East Has Fundamentally Changed

Having spent more than six years in jail and a further two years in exile, the 44-year-old Nasheed also had a unique perspective on his victory in the 2008 Maldivian elections, which saw him break a 30-year monopolistic grip of power held by the former president Gayoom. When asked whether he would pursue prosecution for Gayoom’s misdeeds during his reign as president, Nasheed simply replied that any “vengeance” against Gayoom was the furthest thing from his mind, as any action would only be “counter-productive” towards peace and democracy in his country.

Unsurprisingly, Nasheed was hailed by the international community as a global leader for change. In 2009, Time Magazine awarded him the first place in its “Leaders & Visionaries” category, while Foreign Policy magazine listed him as one of the world’s top global thinkers in 2010. In 2011, British Prime Minister David Cameron had also called Nasheed “my new best friend” during an interview with The Guardian.

The Beginning Of The End

But despite the international accolades, the Maldivian president and his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) were beginning to face opposition from the local population. Former Gayoom cronies often blocked Nasheed’s attempts to implement a batch of sweeping reforms targeted at consolidating democracy in the country, while other Maldivians started to express anger over soaring prices in the country, which they said were a result of economic policies imposed by the government to tackle a huge budget deficit.

The problems came to a head in January this year, when Nasheed ordered the army to arrest the country’s Criminal Court Chief Judge Abdulla Mohamed, who Nasheed claimed was blocking efforts to investigate Gayoom and his associates on corruption charges.

Related: World Corruption Special Report

[quote]In an op-ed published in the New York Times, Nasheed said: “Choosing to stand up to the judge was a controversial decision, but I feel I had no choice but to do what I did — to have taken no action, and passively watched the country’s democracy strangled, would have been the greatest injustice of all.”[/quote]

“My government asked the United Nations to help us investigate judicial abuses and ordered the arrest of Abdulla Mohamed, the chief judge of the criminal court, on charges of protecting the former president and corrupting the judicial system. However, in a dramatic turn of events on Tuesday (7th February 2012), the former president’s supporters protested in the streets, and police officers and army personnel loyal to the old government mutinied and forced me, at gunpoint, to resign. To avoid bloodshed, I did so. I believe this to be a coup d’état and suspect that my vice president (Waheed), who has since been sworn into office, helped to plan it.”

Maldive’s current president, Waheed Hassan, on the other hand claimed that Nasheed was to blame for the violence that had swept the country, especially as he had overstepped his bounds as president when he arrested the Criminal Court Chief Judge.

“It is a very volatile situation, very fluid and very dangerous,” said Mohamed Anil, a former legal reforms commissioner under Nasheed’s predecessor and current head of the Democracy House, a prominent human rights organisation in the Maldivian capital of Male, during an interview with the Inter Press Service. With both the police and political activists indulging in violence, Anil said that Maldives was now sitting atop a powder keg with sparks flying all round it.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Despite this, most tourists remained blind to the violence in the country. While chaos continued to reign in the streets of Male, the country’s tourist spots – mainly upmarket beach resorts – were relatively immune to the violence.

“We are having a great time. We heard about the coup, but it doesn’t matter to us. It hasn’t affected us at all,” said American literature professor Jerzy Sobieraj during an interview with Reuters at the Kurumba resort on the Vihamanafushi islands in the Maldives. Sipping a glass of white wine while lounging with his wife along the beachfront resort, Sobieraj also appeared nonchalant about the ongoing violence that was just a 10-minute boat ride away.

[quote]”The local islands and the tourist islands are a world apart,” said Kurumba’s general manager Jason Kruse. “There have been some cancellations, but that is a result of people not understanding the destination.”[/quote]

“Even if there is trouble, the airport is on another island, so no trouble,” added Sobieraj, pointing to the nearby international airport, which most tourists commute through to reach their resorts without ever going through Male.

According to official statistics, tourism accounts for nearly 30 percent of the Maldives’ $2.1 billion economy. Mohamed Sim Ibrahim, secretary-general of the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry, though believes that the figure is closer to 75-80 percent.

Related: Maldives Economy

Related: Maldives Economic Statistics and Indicators

Last week, Nasheed came out to blame a cabal of resort owners for their alleged support in the attempt to remove him from power. The former Maldivian president had originally wanted to implement new tax reforms on the resort owners that would have prevented them from escaping with potentially hundreds of millions of tax dollars.

[quote]“The coup was largely financed by resort owners,” Nasheed told journalists. “I suppose they liked the old order of corruption,” he added sarcastically.[/quote]

A Calming Tide?

Still, the ousted Maldivian president probably has more pressing concerns. Apart from garnering international support for an independent query into his departure, Nasheed also wants the Maldives to hold new elections as soon as possible.

“Elections” are the bottom line for us,” stressed Eva Abbdulah, an MDP parliamentarian and relative of Nasheed.

“We will keep up our peaceful political activities until an early election date is announced,” added MDP spokesman Hamid Abdul Gafoor in an interview with AFP.

Presently, the next Maldivian elections are scheduled for October 2013. Last Thursday however, India’s Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai managed to hold talks with Nasheed and Waheed Hassan on the possibility of early elections. While there appears to be signs of compromise, the timetable for new elections remains vague.

In the meantime, the international community has advised both parties to remain restrained, particularly in the face of violence and allegations of human rights violence since Nasheed’s resignation.

[quote]“We will be following the events and will be watching to see how the different leaders exert their opinions, in order to ensure that all differences of opinions will be demonstrated peacefully. We condemn any acts of violence,” said UN Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs Oscar Fernandez-Taranco.[/quote]

But despite the UN’s rhetoric, the damage had already been done. The fact that a democratically elected president could be so easily deposed from his post without a peep of international condemnation begs the question on whether the ideals of democracy are as valued as what most politicians champion it to be.

In the aftermath of Nasheed’s resignation, India, the world’s largest democracy, was the first country to congratulate the new government and pledge its allegiance to Waheed Hassan. On a visit to Male over the weekend, the US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake also encouraged Nasheed’s supporters to work with Waheed Hassan’s government, despite the obvious lack of legitimacy for the present government.

Nasheed though, as always, remains optimistic.

Nasheed said in the NYT: “At times, dealing with the corrupt system of patronage the former regime left behind can feel like wrestling with a Hydra: when you remove one head, two more grow back. With patience and determination, the beast can be slain.”

[quote]“Let the Maldives be a lesson for aspiring democrats everywhere: the dictator can be removed in a day, but it can take years to stamp out the lingering remnants of his dictatorship.”[/quote]

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