The Past, Present, and Future of Maldivian Democracy

Mimrah Abdul Ghafoor | 31 October 2023
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No Maldivian government since 2008 has fully adhered to democratic norms. Will President-elect Muizzu break this pattern?

Maldives is one of South Asia’s youngest democracies, having adopted its new constitution and held its first multiparty democratic elections only in 2008.

This September, the country concluded its fourth multi-party presidential election, which was conducted in a largely peaceful and competitive manner. The incumbent, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), conceded to Mayor of Malé Mohamed Muizzu, the candidate of the People’s National Congress (PNC), which is in coalition with the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM).

A peaceful transition of power is expected on November 17.

Despite this milestone, democracy in Maldives stands on shaky ground. Since transitioning in 2008, the country has witnessed coups, judicial interventions, and periods of political unrest. Muizzu’s candidacy has sparked concerns due to his affiliations with PPM’s Yameen Abdul Gayoom, president from 2013-2018, under whom he served as housing minister. Yameen’s tenure was notorious for its authoritarianism.

Initially a placeholder for Yameen, Muizzu became the primary candidate for the PPM-PNC coalition after the Supreme Court disqualified Yameen, who is serving an 11-year sentence for money laundering. This context raises questions about whether Muizzu will follow Yameen’s autocratic tendencies.

However, the situation is more nuanced than it initially appears. Solih’s administration also displayed lapses in upholding democratic norms, consistent with a troubling pattern evident across multiple Maldivian governments. Moreover, signs of a growing rift between Yameen and Muizzu suggest that Muizzu might opt for a more independent governance style, rather than simply following in Yameen’s footsteps.

Maldives’ journey to democracy was long, arduous, and fraught with challenges. The immediate years after its independence from British protectorate status in 1965 were dominated by strongmen: Ibrahim Nasir, president from 1968 to 1978, and then Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled uninterrupted for three decades, from 1978 to 2008.

With the turn of the millennium, resistance to Gayoom’s authoritarian rule intensified. Mohamed Nasheed, a journalist and founder of the MDP, emerged as a key opposition figure, enduring repeated and prolonged imprisonment and torture for his activism. Responding to growing pressure for reform, Gayoom introduced a democratic roadmap in 2006 that led to the country’s first democratic constitution in 2008. Nasheed defeated Gayoom in the elections, becoming the first democratically-elected president of Maldives.

Democracy has remained fragile since. Nasheed’s presidency, for instance, proved challenging. His government continually faced obstructions from an opposition-controlled legislature, and a judiciary filled with Gayoom-era appointees. Nasheed himself was not averse to executive overreach — for instance arbitrarily arresting the chief justice of the Criminal Court on charges of judicial misconduct. Mounting protests against his administration, coupled with a police mutiny, led to his resignation in February 2012 under controversial circumstances.

Subsequent elections in 2013 were marred by controversy. Nasheed led in the first round, only for the Supreme Court to nullify the results. Repeated delays in runoff elections seemed to benefit his opposition, leading to Nasheed’s narrow loss to Yameen Abdul Gayoom, Maumoon’s half-brother.

Yameen’s term was a setback for Maldivian democracy. He imprisoned political rivals, including Nasheed, on terrorism charges, restricted public assembly, and stifled the media. Additionally, multiple journalists critical of Yameen were either murdered or disappeared. Public trust in the government eroded further as a massive embezzlement scandal implicating senior figures in his government surfaced.

The 2018 presidential elections in Maldives took place in a climate of political repression, with multiple opponents of President Yameen incarcerated. Initially, Nasheed was the MDP candidate, but the aforementioned terrorism conviction made him ineligible to contest. He then endorsed Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, who led a unified opposition and defeated Yameen. Solih’s victory was widely hailed as a welcome resuscitation of democracy in the country.

Despite winning this powerful mandate, public support for the Solih administration waned as it failed to live up to its inaugural promises. The government’s reluctance to investigate corruption cases involving its political allies undermined public trust, as did the multiple corruption scandals that emerged under its watch. Furthermore, the choice to prosecute only Yameen for corruption, while overlooking other beneficiaries in his former administration, appeared selective and politically motivated.

The Solih administration also self-servingly declined to reverse undemocratic measures from Yameen’s tenure, such as limitations on freedom of assembly. Additionally, the government resorted to an executive order to halt an “India Out” campaign by the opposition, which protested against an alleged Indian military presence in Maldives. While the campaign was itself controversial, banning it via an executive order arguably set a bad precedent that can be abused in the future to clamp down on free speech.

Following internal divisions within the MDP driven by a rift between Solih and Nasheed, loyalists to the latter formed a new breakaway party called The Democrats. In the Elections Commission, tensions rose as members loyal to the government tried to delay the new party’s official registration. This was met with resistance from the Commission’s president who wanted to expedite the registration process. The dispute sparked an attempted vote of no confidence against the Elections Commission’s president, politicizing the body and undermining its independence.

Lastly, while the recent election was comparatively competitive and peaceful, it was not without issues. For instance, the government was accused by both domestic and international observers of exploiting state resources for electoral gain, and of offering financial incentives to the media for favorable coverage. Allegations of vote-buying also proliferated, though this was not exclusive to either side.

Hence, despite concerns about Muizzu’s ties to Yameen, it should be underscored that his electoral victory was partly fueled by widespread dissatisfaction with the Solih administration’s democratic shortcomings. This was evident in the first round of voting, in which Solih garnered only 39 percent of the vote — in contrast to Muizzu’s 45 percent — despite being the incumbent and expected frontrunner.

Furthermore, there is an emerging yet salient rift between Muizzu and Yameen. Yameen, who transitioned from prison to house arrest following Muizzu’s win, has a complex relationship with the president-elect. After the Supreme Court declared Yameen ineligible to run, he hesitated to endorse Muizzu as an alternative, and instead called for an election boycott. However, Yameen reversed this stance when it became clear that his supporters were unlikely to heed his call.

Given this context, and considering Muizzu’s unclear position on both facilitating Yameen’s release and acceding to Yameen’s ambition to return to power, it is highly plausible that Muizzu intends to distance himself from Yameen.

Yameen’s loss in the 2018 election serves as a cautionary tale. He secured only around 40 percent of the vote, compared to Solih’s 60 percent, largely due to public disapproval of his authoritarian and corrupt governance. This should act as a warning to Muizzu, who presumably intends to eventually contest for a second term. He has thus far provided at least nominal assurance that he will govern in accordance with the will of the people.

The question of how faithfully Muizzu will abide by this commitment remains a matter of speculation. In truth, no Maldivian government since 2008 has fully adhered to democratic norms. Until there is a concerted, cross-party effort to uphold the constitution, respect the separation of powers, and honor democratic principles, Maldives’ emerging democracy will continue to be vulnerable to regression. So far this has not been the case. Whether Muizzu will break this pattern is ultimately at his discretion.

Mimrah Ghafoor writes on the politics and diplomacy of the Indian Ocean, with a particular focus on the Maldives. He holds a Master of Arts in International Relations from the University of St Andrews. He served as a speechwriter for the President of the 76th Session of the General Assembly.

This article was originally published on The Diplomat.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.