Sustaining the embrace of democracy

It was as if the collective mood of optimism had a fragrance, and it wafted through the narrow streets of Male, bringing the Maldivian citizenry to its feet. People thronged to the picturesque Republic Square that overlooked the presidential jetty. Saturday was a day of monumental change in this tiny Indian Ocean-nation of 1,192 islands.

After five years of the Abdulla Yameen government, and a disconcerting drift into what many Maldivians felt was the stifling embrace of China, the people exercised their right to franchise on September 23 and voted resoundingly for a coalition of pro-democracy parties, bringing to power a government led by the Maldives Democratic Party. Their new President, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, is considered by India to be a friend, and the man who will be advising him closely, Mohamed Nasheed, has a staunch pro-India outlook.

The immediate challenges are twofold: political and economic. Politically, the question is whether the multiparty alliance will hold in the face of the immense pressures that the nation faces. Only time will tell if Mr. Nasheed’s belief, that Mr. Solih has “the ability and the capacity to… make sure that all parties stick together, that everyone is able to compromise”, will be realised.

Second, complex economic challenges arose from the Yameen administration’s headlong plunge into the vortex of Chinese expansionist ambitions. The nation rapidly racked up massive debts linked to infrastructure investments. What was initially thought to be in the range of $1.4 billion is now suspected to be closer to $3 billion, if not higher. So, how does the country engage the dragon? Mr. Nasheed, and presumably Mr. Solih, have a simple answer: they will pay back what they owe, but will audit every single project, and will call for international arbitration where a proper procedure was not followed for the initial allocation.

The greatest problem that confronts the Maldives today is, however, neither economic nor relating political parties, but in the realm of Maldivian citizens’ social contract with their leadership.

Fundamental rights diminished

Shahindha Ismail of the Maldivian Democracy Network, a non-partisan NGO promoting human rights and democracy, worries about draconian laws, enacted in the past five years, especially those that have diminished fundamental rights. Alongside this feature, Ms. Ismail says, corruption has risen to levels not seen before, sustained by more serious violations, including murder, street violence and organised crime. These multiple strands, she believes, are interlinked and the decay in governance can be triangulated to three groups every time: politicians, religious radicals and violent groups. An important reason the Maldives veers between authoritarian and democratic modes of functioning is that the country’s geography implies that communities are far-flung and small, making them easy to manipulate. This also leads to a greater dependence on politicians and business tycoons.

While the Solih government will have much to attend to on the policy front immediately, the longer haul may be an uphill journey, Ms. Ismail says. In part, this is because certain constituents who had historically opted for centralised political power, including former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and members of the 2012 coup, are now part of the new dispensation.

Hopefully the greater level of societal awareness will make a difference this time and ensure that genuine democracy takes root in the archipelago.

Maldivians have voted out the Yameen administration. The challenge now is to relegate its authoritarian strands to history by keeping a constant vigil on the leaders of the new coalition

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