From the genocide of the Rohingya, to the violent crackdown on peaceful protesters in Nicaragua, to the surprising success of right-wing populism in Brazil, to the increasingly virulent strains of isolationist nationalism that have been taking root in eastern Europe, it’s a grim time for democracy around the world. But an unexpected source of hope has emerged from the Maldives, an island nation known for little more than its idyllic beaches and long history of authoritarian rule.
Since 2013, the reign of President Abdulla Yameen brought mass abuses of human rights to the Maldives: the jailing or exiling of opposition leaders, increased control over state institutions, withdrawal from Commonwealth, and widespread corruption are only the tip of the iceberg for the small, tropical country.
But on Sept. 23, over 90 percent of Maldivians voted in the first general elections since Yameen came to power five years ago—and voted overwhelmingly for the opposition, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party, who won after receiving 58 percent of the votes.
But while a celebration is in order, it’s worth remembering that the Maldives has been here before. When two of us first came to work with Maldivians in 2006, we were impressed by the brave and committed Maldivian people, who acted time and time again with courage and talent to defend democracy within their country. And though both of us spent more than a decade with brave Serbian activists fighting the Slobodan Milosevic regime, and years after that training and educating democracy defenders from Kiev, Ukraine, and Tbilisi, Georgia, to Caracas, Venezuela, and Harare, Zimbabwe, through our organization, CANVAS. we could see immediately that Maldivian activists are unique in so many ways.
In 2008, after a 30-year-long period of dictatorship under Maumoon Abdul Gayoom—whose iron-hand rule of the island nation was characterized by a low tolerance for protests and any vocal opposition combined with a high appetite for nepotism and corruption—overwhelming popular support brought “Anni”—the popular nickname for former journalist Mohamed Nasheed—to power as the Maldives’ first democratically elected president. Anni was successful for the first three years of his presidency as he worked to combat radical Islam and mobilize the tiny island nation to become a leading global voice in the fight against climate change. But his term ended prematurely after three years when, after a coup led by parts of the judiciary and the military, Nasheed resigned after reportedly being held at gunpoint.
Key foreign powers quickly signed on to the new regime’s interpretation that this was a voluntary resignation; the governments of Britain, the United States, and India quickly recognized the new government as valid. However, Nasheed and his followers asserted that a coup had taken place and that he had been forced to resign at gunpoint. The Commonwealth met and concluded that an international investigation needed to take place, but no further action was taken to investigate the constitutionality of the regime change from an international perspective.
Just a day after the regime change took place, Nasheed penned an op-ed for the New York Times detailing his attempts to reform the entire governmental system of the Maldives and the struggles that he faced attempting to do so. He writes, “The dictator can be removed in a day, but it can take years to stamp out the lingering remnants of his dictatorship.” His words proved prophetic. At the next general elections in 2013, Abdulla Yameen (the half-brother of former dictator Gayoom) was elected, and the Maldives returned to old habits. Under Yameen, government funds were embezzled, peaceful protests were suppressed, independent media outlets were shut down, and political prisoners were jailed. Now it seems that the collective international community has finally exhaled in relief. The Maldives may, in fact, have a democratic transition of power. Yameen’s regime is finally over.
Recent history has shown that we cannot allow this positive development to cloud our judgment and lull us into a false sense of security. About 90 percent of the Maldives’ population voted in this year’s elections, showing an unprecedented amount of engagement in Maldivian democracy. The international community owes it to Maldivian citizens to keep watch and ensure a democratic transition of power occurs in November, and furthermore aid the new government in ensuring it can implement positive changes to ensure the longevity of the country’s democracy.
It is especially imperative that we pay close attention to the Maldives in the wake of this election, taking into account the lessons that we have learned through the forced resignation of Nasheed. The Maldives is a relatively small nation, and the apathy of the international community toward the continuation of its democracy not only hurts the country but has a negative impact on the entire world. Had it continued along its path as a democracy last time, thrusting itself into the spotlight as the first Muslim-majority country with peaceful transitions of power within its democratic institutions, and had the world not ignored this tiny island nation, the Maldives might have brought its institutions, expertise, and goodwill toward other countries in the region, maybe even setting the example, case study, and inspiration, and thus radically changing the context through which the Arab Spring occurred only three years after Nasheed`s victory in 2008.
Major media outlets have focused most of their attention on the geopolitical impact of this change, especially the fact that Yameen had been turning a country closer to China, while Solih’s MDP has always advocated for closer ties to the most populous democracy, India. But there is another very important arena in which the smallest Asian country can affect not only the region, but the world—the struggle for democracy.
The world should recognize Solih’s presidency as a beacon of light for other Muslim countries that have experienced similar issues in transitioning to power. Instead of ignoring the potential of the Maldives, we need to instead do our best to nurture Maldivian democracy until it is able to fully bloom—and this means that the international community must do its best to push the Maldives toward a few key changes. At least two avenues of reform are clear: fixing the judiciary and building a muscle of the civil society.
Amnesty International has regularly called for the reform of the Maldives’ infamously corrupt judiciary. The courts have been used by the government to crush the opposition—most notably in the trial of Nasheed shortly after he was forced out of the presidency. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison for terrorism charges and denied access to a lawyer by two judges who had already served as witnesses against him during the investigation phase. In this case, the Maldives needs critical outside aid in order to form an educated, experienced, and corruption-free set of judges.
Second, and even more important, is to empower and support another backbone of vivid democracy: Maldivian civil society. The issue in the Maldives is not that people are unwilling to engage with democracy—they have proven their commitment twice in the past decade by voting in numbers unimaginable for Western democracies. But the international community can help, guide, equip, and train already mobilized Maldivian citizens into a solid and lasting civic power that will make any further efforts to hijack democracy in Maldives impossible.
The new hope for world democracy may be rising in Maldives. This time, democracy lovers of this world must not miss the importance of helping it.