Autocracy and Back Again: The Ordeal of the Maldives

Last month, Maldivian ex-President Mohamed Nasheed was sentenced to 13 years prison under charges of “terrorism.” More specifically, the Supreme Court of the Maldives accused him of ordering the imprisonment of a judge during a period of political turmoil in 2012, which culminated in Nasheed’s forced resignation. In the international community, Nasheed’s arrest is viewed by many as driven by the current government’s effort to eliminate potential opposition.

Educated in England, Nasheed rose to prominence as a dissident journalist challenging the autocratic Maumoon Abdul Gayyoom, who ruled the islands with an iron hand from 1978 to 2008. Nasheed, whom Amnesty International declared a Prisoner of Conscience, was imprisoned a total of 16 times under Gayyoom’s rule. Nevertheless, he was persistent in his activism, founding the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) in 2003 while in exile. His activism, as well as civil unrest that year, pressured Gayyoom into allowing for gradual political reforms, which culminated in the promulgation of new constitution in 2008. The new constitution, describing the Maldives a “democratic republic based on the principles of Islam,” significantly extended civil and political freedoms, provided for an independent judiciary, strengthened the legislature and set up human rights and anti-corruption commissions. A few months later, the country held its first multiparty elections, bringing Nasheed into power on a platform of democratic change as well as social and economic liberalism. The largely peaceful transition from three decades of authoritarianism to democracy was greeted by many countries as a remarkable achievement of high symbolic value, as it seemed to prove the power of popular mobilization.

Initially, Nasheed’s presidency seemed equally promising. His government carried out a number of ambitious social projects, including the construction of a public ferry transport system and universal health care. In 2009, Nasheed announced a plan for the islands to achieve carbon neutrality within a decade. This was just one of the many means by which the government sought to alert the international community to the plight of the low-lying Maldives, which are at risk of being submerged if current climate change trends are not reversed. In a publicity stunt shown in the documentary “The Island President,” Nasheed even held an underwater cabinet meeting.

However, trouble soon emerged on the political front. Because Nasheed did not hold a parliamentary majority, his government was prone to disruptive disputes with the opposition party. Instead of preventing the abuse of power, the division of authority led to factionalism, generating a political deadlock and protracted conflict between the government and strengthened parliament and judicial institutions. The result was a series of political crises: Parliament and the judiciary repeatedly blocked governmental policies, citing their responsibility to hold the government accountable. The latter’s response varied from accusing them of obstructionism to unlawfully detaining two opposition MPs. In 2010, the cabinet resigned en masse to protest the parliament’s “hijacking” of their work, only to be reinstated without parliamentary approval.

The antagonism between the government and other actors can be interpreted as a behind-the-scenes power struggle, outside of the electoral process. As independent observers have pointed out, institutions like the judiciary were widely seen as “authoritarian enclaves,” allied with the political and economic elites that benefitted from Gayyoom’s authoritarian rule. This supports Nasheed’s claim that “many judges remained under the effective control of the former regime and were blocking corruption and embezzlement cases.” Indeed, Nasheed faced resistance in fighting Gayyoom’s legacy of corruption and nepotism: Important judicial reforms were not carried out and widespread inequality persisted.

This, in turn, led to popular discontent with Nasheed over what they considered the government’s mismanagement of the economy, evident in rising commodity prices. The situation came to a head in early 2012, when economic disaffection was coupled with another political crisis after Nasheed ordered the military to arrest of a chief judge. While the president defended his decision as a necessary last resort after the judge had ignored accusations of corruption and “quashed his own police arrest warrant,” his opponents saw the arrest as politically motivated and organized protests in Malé, the country’s capital. After police forces sided with the protesters, Nasheed resigned, only to later claim that he had been forced to do so with a “gun held to his head.” Following this controversial resignation, power was handed over to Vice President Mohamed Waheed Hassan. Nasheed and his supporters were violently suppressed. As Amnesty International described the situation, “police […] carried out beatings, arbitrary detentions, attacks on the injured in hospitals and torture,” without facing charges under the new government.

Surprisingly, many countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, were quick to abandon Nasheed, instead endorsing his successor. However, the United States backtracked in late 2012 in response to widespread criticism. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland stated that “the circumstances in the Maldives are murky and contested.” She continued that she “got herself in a place that was not borne out of facts” after declaring the new government as legitimate.

New elections were held in late 2013 but remain highly contested due to considerable interference by the judiciary. Contrary to the assessment of international election observers, the Supreme Court cited irregularities and annulled the first round, in which former president Mohammed Nasheed won most votes. In the end, the supporters of two parties opposing Nasheed, the Jumhoree and the Progressive party, combined and gained a majority.

Following the Progressive Party’s triumph, Abdulla Yameen, half-brother of the former dictator Gayyoom, assumed the presidency. He has claimed that his foremost priority is the economy, namely stabilizing the currency and creating jobs. However, Yameen’s presidency has been largely marked by his foreign policy shift away from Nasheed’s pro-Western stance and towards increased engagement with China, whose president, Xi Jinping, has been the first visit Chinese leader to visit the Maldives since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Concurrent with this development, domestic politics has seen a rise in anti-Western rhetoric. Yameen has effectively used Islam as a tool of identity politics, framing religious mobilization as the solution to Western attempts to undermine Maldivian national sovereignty. And while Islam was seen as the cultural and legal underpinning of the Maldivian state under both Gayyoom and Nasheed, Yameen’s policy of connecting Islam with anti-Western rhetoric represents a new development.

The upshot is a somewhat more stable social situation—at least in comparison to the turmoil of 2012. In addition, the new government appears to suffer less from the institutional gridlock that crippled Nasheed’s rule. However, this change has come at the cost of Nasheed’s project to strengthen the country’s nascent democracy. Indeed, the current government has shown far less fervor in addressing the problematic institutional constellations of power that have complicated attempts to foster democratic practices. Above all, the recent political turmoil in the Maldives highlights the difficulties of translating democratic law into practice. Nasheed’s failure to do so and the circumstances of his resignation reveal just how precarious this step can be for a fledgling democracy. Thus far, it remains to be seen whether the current government will reorientate itself towards this project.