The end to the dream of a democratic paradise

The Maldives’ democratic experiment is threatened by remnants of the old dictatorship, write authors.

"Nasheed’s journey from a Maldivian torture cell to global statesman is the stuff movies are made of," write Lykke Friis and Anders Henriksen. [AP]

To most foreigners, the Maldives is an idyllic tropical holiday destination packed with luxury resorts, world-class cuisine, scuba diving and sublime relaxation. Surely, if there is a paradise on earth it can’t be far from these beautiful atolls in the Indian Ocean. Below the tranquil surface, however, this small island nation is embroiled in a desperate fight for its political and democratic future. And it is a struggle with wide-reaching ramifications. On the morning of Saturday, October 19, the Maldivian Police Force prevented the Election Commission from conducting a long awaited Presidential election that may very well be the most crucial in the country’s history. The decision by the Police followed a highly suspicious October 7, 2013, decision by the Maldivian Supreme Court whereby the Court annulled the result of the first round of presidential election and ordered that a new round of elections should be held on October 19. 

After three decades of dictatorship, real democracy was introduced to the islands in 2008. Mohammed Nasheed – a former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience – won the country’s first free presidential elections. He introduced wide-ranging reforms. Political prisoners were freed, Maldivians were able to speak freely and internationally, the president gained admiration and respect for his well-articulated efforts to persuade the most powerful states in the world to act against climate change.  In the run up to the COP15 climate change summit in Copenhagen, President Nasheed became the symbol of hundreds of millions of people in the less fortunate parts of the world who fear the consequences of global warming. Nasheed’s journey from a Maldivian torture cell to global statesman is the stuff movies are made of; indeed, a documentary film about him – The Island President – was recently released. 

But political life in the Maldives is far from a Hollywood fairy-tale, and it did not take long for dark clouds to gather on the otherwise beautiful Maldivian sky. On assuming office in 2008, Nasheed had closed the book on the past and decided not to prosecute key-figures from the old regime, including the dreaded dictator, Maumoon Gayoom. It was a decision that would come back to haunt Nasheed. On February 7, 2012, forces loyal to the old dictatorship staged a mutiny and forced Nasheed to resign and hand power to a puppet of the former regime. While less bloody than other coups in history, it was still a coup. With the forced resignation of Nasheed, the historic march to democracy in the Maldives had taken a drastic U-turn. In hindsight, the events in February 2012 should have surprised no one. As Nasheed himself has noted: “the dictator can be removed in a day, but it can take years to stamp out the lingering remnants of his dictatorship.”

In the ensuing battle to regain democracy, the Maldivian judiciary has turned out to be a particular big obstacle. According to a recent UN-report, incompetence and corruption is widespread within the judiciary and it was therefore hardly a shock that the Supreme Court decided to annul the result of the first round of the presidential elections on the basis of a far-fetched complaint of election fraud by a loosing candidate. Nasheed’s party prevailed in the first round – winning 45 percent of the vote – and seemed destined to secure a landslide victory in the second round. By overruling the positive assessment of the election by international election observers and the independent Election Commission, the judges robbed the Maldivian people of their long awaited right to determine their own future and perpetrated their own de facto coup. Like the other remnants of the Gayoom days, the judiciary is well aware that their days are numbered if democracy is ever to endure on the islands. 

For sure, the current political instability in the Maldives is not unique and democracy is struggling in many places around the world. What is particularly sad about the depressing turn of events in the Maldives, however, is the fact that the islands are in many ways a litmus test for democracy in other Muslim countries. It is therefore not only the future of the small island state itself that is at stake – it is the vitality of a Muslim democracy. 

The international community should do its utmost to help the Maldivian people in their desperate fight to keep democracy alive. The peaceful democratic transition in 2008 proved to the world that democracy can be established in the Muslim world without bloodshed. But it is one thing to establish democracy; another matter to keep it. Without a significant increase in international pressure on the current illegitimate government to hold free and fair presidential elections, one fears the end of Maldivian democracy. 

Ms. Lykke Friis, PhD, is Prorector for Education at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. She is former Minister of Climate and Energy and also Minister for Gender Equality. 

Anders Henriksen, PhD, is an associate professor of Public International Law at the Faculty of Law at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, where he runs the Centre for International Law and Justice.