By Azim Zahir
22 September 2018
It has been 10 years since the Maldivians
shook off a three-decade-long dictatorship and chose to walk down the path of
democracy. In October 2008, long-term Maldivian leader Maumoon Abdul Gayoom
left power peacefully, after a popular opposition movement challenged his power
and forced him to hold the Maldives' first multiparty presidential vote.
Over the past 10 years, the country has
held regular multiparty elections and in just a few days, on September 23,
Maldivians will head to the polls to choose their president for the third time
since 2008. The incumbent Abdulla Yameen is running against long-term
legislator Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, endorsed by a coalition of opposition
In any young democracy, an election would
be celebrated as an expression of democratic life, but in the Maldives today,
the upcoming vote is just another indication of the death of its democracy.
There is currently little hope that the
flawed electoral process and the vote on September 23 will change the current tendencies
towards an authoritarian relapse in Maldivian politics.
A Short Democratic Moment
When popular protests erupted in September
2003, following the brutal killing of an inmate in Maldivian prison, hopes for
meaningful change in the country ran high. A coalition of opposition parties,
led by Mohamed Nasheed from Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) rode the wave of
public discontent and managed to force Gayoom to open up the political system
and hold free elections.
In 2008, Nasheed, backed by a coalition of
parties, defeated Gayoom in a runoff and became the Maldives' first freely
elected president. Two years later, the international watchdog Freedom House
listed the country as an electoral democracy for the first time in its history.
But that newly acquired "status"
did not translate into practises on the ground. The Maldivian political class
did not give up their predatory behaviour and unprincipled politics.
The new political parties, their leaders,
parliamentarians, the judges, and those who pump money into politics did not
fully embrace democracy.
Nasheed himself made authoritarian moves,
including arresting officials and opposition politicians to deal with mounting
political and economic challenges.
Instead of trying to make the democratic
transition work despite disagreements, the opposition sought to end Nasheed's
government by any means. He was forced to resign in February 2012 after
sections of the police and the military mutinied and backed the demand of the
opposition for his resignation.
Then in 2013, Gayoom's Progressive Party of
the Maldives (PPM) nominated his half-brother, Yameen, to run against Nasheed
in the presidential race. It then entered into a coalition with the Jumhooree
Party and Islamist Adalat Party, both of which backed the MDP against Gayoom
back in 2008.
This alliance helped Yameen win the vote
with 51 percent.
Descent into A New Despotism
Soon after he took power, Yameen, too,
veered off the democratic path. He gradually took control of various
institutions, hollowed them out and made them subservient to his political
agenda, all the while talking about democracy, rule of law, and development.
The judiciary has been one of the main
targets of Yameen's authoritarian assault on state institutions. Soon after he
took power, he used his party's legislative majority to change the law
regulating the composition of the country's top court.
Using these amendments, the president
managed to remove the chief justice and lower court judge, both of whom were
known for their relative independence. This effectively made the judiciary
dependent on the executive branch.
In the following years, all major political
rivals to Yameen were imprisoned on various charges, including former President
Nasheed, his own half-brother - Gayoom, his own vice president - Ahmed Adeeb,
Adalat Party leader Imran Abdullah, and the country's richest man, Gasim
Similarly, when his despotic adventurism
estranged his coalition partners and the president lost their legislative
majority, the courts and the elections body stripped 12 opposition MPs of their
And when, in a surprising turn of events,
in February this year, the top court ruled to free all opposition leaders, the
security apparatus arrested the chief justice and lower court judge.
A month later, parliament changed the law
again and paved way for the removal of the two judges. Yameen thereby regained
control over the court.
His type of despotism, of course, still
leaves pockets of space for political and civic activism. Parties still
function; there is still part of the media that can be critical; there is some
freedom of expression, especially on the internet; and there is a sense of a
vibrant public sphere.
However, the effect of ever-changing laws
and hijacked institutions is that even those freedoms can be taken away
whenever Mr Yameen wants. This type of regime is what Australian political
thinker John Keane calls "new despotism": governments, "backed
by democratic rhetoric and election victories, massively expand their executive
powers by means of economic nepotism, media controls, strangled judiciaries,
dragnet surveillance and armed crackdowns on their opponents".
Elections without hope for democracy
It is amid such political circumstances
that Maldivians will be voting on September 23. There are already signs that
the electoral process is flawed. Several candidates were not allowed to contest
the election because of politically motivated prison sentences.
The independence of the election commission
and the Supreme Court are also in doubt. Elections have been postponed before
several times and the results of the 2013 vote annulled.
And even if the election is free and fair
on September 23, what is on offer are two bad options: Yameen and the promise
of deepening authoritarianism; or Solih and the prospect of an unstable
government of warring factions.
Solih is backed by Nasheed's MDP and its
unholy alliance with Jumhooree Party and Islamist Adalat Party (which went
against him in 2012) and with his former rival, Gayoom, who was pushed out of
This coalition is currently held together
by their common enemy - Yameen. If they win and Solih comes to power, there is
no guarantee that they will stick together. In fact, the recent past shows that
these political parties are quick to abandon their alliances whenever their
narrow self-interest is in danger.
If, unlike his predecessors, Solih tries to
stick to democratic processes and negotiations to resolve political
disagreements, he would find it difficult to do so in the face of a predatory
political culture and widespread corruption which have eroded any serious
commitment to democratic norms and principled politics.
In other words, whether Yameen or the
opposition wins this election, there is little hope the country would be put
back on the democratic track.
Azim Zahir is a PhD candidate at the University of Western Australia.