The Maldives: a democratic revolution

About the author
Judith Evans is editor of the Maldives-based national news website MinivanNews, covering politics and general news in English for a local and international audience

The citizens of the tiny Indian Ocean nation of the Maldives witnessed an extraordinary moment on 29 October 2008. A live broadcast on state television depicted the autocratic president who had ruled the country since 1978 standing beside his greatest political rival - and acknowledging his defeat in the just-concluded two-round election.

Judith Evans is editor of the Maldives-based national news website MinivanNews, which covers politics and general news in English for a local and international audienceThe scene in the opulent president's office was at once riveting and surreal. Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, after all, had been prepared for many years to use state power to repress opposition and crush dissent; yet here was the 71-year-old leader telling the nation: "I accept the will of the people. I have conceded the elections." Alongside was the 41-year-old Mohamed Nasheed, who had spent a significant period of his adult life as a political prisoner only to emerge as the principal challenger to Gayoom - and ultimately the victor in the country's first-ever multi-candidate presidential election.  

The spirit of reconciliation was almost as astonishing as the fact of the meeting itself. Here was Gayoom bowing out with more dignity than he had shown throughout much of his long reign; here was Nasheed, a compelling figure who had become the international face of the Maldives's reform movement, saying he would not take action against the man whose security forces have tortured him, fed him ground glass and kept him in solitary confinement for as long as eighteen months at a stretch. "He is going to be staying with us. I don't think we should be going for a witch-hunt and digging up the past", said the man widely known as "Anni".

A democratic election in an authoritarian state, followed by a peaceful acceptance of the opposition's victory, is rare enough - and enough of a contrast with the experience of so many countries around the world, from Burma to Zimbabwe - as to be a cause for celebration. The always overplayed image of a Maldives paradise has for once acquired reality - and in politics rather in the tourist brochures.

After this shining moment, the deeper social problems that are part of the legacy of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom's years in power will take a long time to overcome. Now, however, the experience of this democratic election - and the signals of a peaceful transition of power - have created a precedent that will surely be of immense value to the Maldives's future.

From Angola to Zimbabwe, Armenia to Spain, openDemocracy authors assess the outcome of elections around the world in 2008:

Irfan Husain, "Pakistan's judgment day" (22 January 2008)

James Ker-Lindsay, " Cyprus: walk, don't run" (22 February 2008)

Gérard Prunier, "Kenya: histories of hidden war" (29 February 2008)

Andrew Wilson, "Russia's post-election balance" (3 March 2008)

Armine Ishkanian, "Democracy contested: Armenia's fifth presidential elections" (4 March 2008)

Ivan Briscoe, "From the shadows: Spain's election lessons" (10 March 2008)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia's dangerous gulf" (30 May 2008)

Roger Southall, "The politics of pressure: the world and Zimbabwe" (26 June 2008)

John Crabtree, "Bolivia: democratic tides" (2 July 2008)

Lara Pawson, "Angola's elections: the politics of no change" (23 September 2008)

Guy Hedgecoe, "Ecuador's hyper-political wave" (30 September 2008)

Natalia Leshchenko, "Belarus's election paradox" (1 October 2008)

Anton Pelinka, "Austria's democratic wound" (2 October 2008)
The road to vote

The election itself was the culmination of a five-year democratic-reform process, in which Maldivians had taken to the streets to protest against the tight control held by President Gayoom and his Dhivehi Raiyyithunge Party (DRP) allies over every government institution. Their efforts and sacrifices were vital in securing a new constitution, ratified on 7 August 2008, which introduced a raft of reforms that included a separation of powers, independent commissions, and a bill of rights.

At the time of the document's ratification, many doubted that the Maldives government was - after many years of one-candidate referenda to secure another term for the president - prepared to oversee a genuinely democratic election. Gayoom had repeatedly pledged to hold elections before the end of his sixth presidential term on 11 November 2008, and 7 August was the latest possible date they could take place under the new constitution. The tight timetable confirmed suspicions of an impending "fix". In the rushed pre-election period, voter-education programmes were compressed into three weeks, as the newly independent elections commission scrambled to work with an outdated and heavily flawed voter-list. All the while, the government retained control of state media.

The concerns persisted during the campaign, where six candidates (including Gayoom and Nasheed) were registered to run for the presidency. To many veterans of the Maldives's political scene, the conditions were all-too-reminiscent of the one-candidate "elections" of the past; one contender, Ibrahim Ismail, warned that if results did not go Gayoom's way, he might "do a Mugabe".

Indeed, during the first round of voting, which took place on 8 October, widespread problems with voter-registration almost stopped the polls. Thousands of would-be voters - the exact number has not been confirmed - found themselves missing from the voter-list, sparking protests amid pouring rain outside the central counting-station in the capital, Malé. The elections commission almost affirmed its newly independent status by choosing to postpone the vote.

There were also gathering reports of misconduct, mainly by the government side. The opposition media reported large-scale bribery efforts, with 500 Maldivian Rufiyaa ($39) said to be the routine "price" for a vote. An entrenched network of island and atoll chiefs - powerful local-government figures, all appointed by Gayoom under the old constitution - was said to be threatening civil servants with job losses if they failed to back the president's campaign. There were also fears that in overcrowded Malé, powerful street-gangs - reinforced by the release from police custody of leaders and murder-suspects - were being primed to help secure the "right" result.

In the event, the first-round vote went ahead, with Nasheed - conscious of the impending end of Gayoom's term, and perhaps scenting victory even at that stage - urging the commission and other candidates to continue the process. The outcome was an ad-hoc registration system that (according to a Commonwealth observation mission) "compromised some aspects of the election". The Commonwealth team in addition noted allegations of bribery, patronage, low-level violence and government influence; but it found that the polls were "credible overall" and had "met many of the benchmarks for democratic elections to which Maldives has committed itself".

A time to breathe

The first-round results reduced the field from six to two: since the president was denied an absolute majority, the top two vote-winners - arch-rivals Gayoom (with 40%) and Nasheed (25%) went through to a second round on 28 October.

In the interim, an already bitter government campaign intensified, with Gayoom accusing his rival of breaching political taboos such as spreading Christianity and seeking to legalise cannabis. On the other side, the defeated first-round candidates rallied to back Nasheed, whose Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) campaigned under the potent slogan Aneh Dhivehi Raajje ("The Other Maldives"). Yet on 28 October, the second round proceeded with an almost eerie calm in Malé. The voting queues were short, and voters tranquil if apprehensive about the results. "It might be fair and smooth, but there might be a big fight also", said 21-year-old finance secretary Mariyam Mohamed as she waited to cast her ballot.

The fears proved unjustified. "There are the normal shortcomings with the voter list, but it doesn't appear that this was deliberately initiated by somebody", said a diplomatic observer during the poll. "Standards are much better than last time."

When the results were announced by the election commission in the early hours of 29 October, "Anni" - in an impressive turnout of 86% - had received 53.65% - a narrow but clear victory.

At this point, many Maldivians and foreign onlookers held their breath. Gayoom, after all, had imposed a state of emergency in 2004 when the Maldives's first wave of street protests - sparked by the death of a prisoner, Evan Naseem, in custody in 2003 - escalated. There was tension amid the calm: an opposition leader said that the police and army had indicated they would not back a new crackdown, and rumours of a backstage deal between Gayoom and Nasheed circulated.

Then, in the early morning of 29 October, Gayoom made a short announcement on state radio: "Beloved Maldivians...I accept the results of the 28 October runoff election, and I respectfully congratulate Mr Mohamed Nasheed and his party". Asia's longest-serving head of state was, after all, ready to stand down.

Maldivians could at last breathe out. The public reaction to Anni's win was euphoric. In Malé, thousands gathered to greet the dawn while singing campaign-songs and hugging one another. Even Gayoom's supporters in the streets seemed sanguine: "I don't support this but I think it is ok", said 36-year-old Khadeeja Mohamed."I'm not surprised".

The legacy and the future

After the party, the hangover? Mohamed Nasheed certainly has a tough inheritance. The Maldives - whose 300,000 inhabitants are spread across 200 far-flung inhabited coral islands - has endemic social problems: it may be south Asia's richest nation by GDP per capita (a statistic much proclaimed by Gayoom), but 30% of children are malnourished, 40% of people live on less than $2 a day, and a growing heroin epidemic consumes the lives of many teenagers.

The country has also slid down the international-corruption rankings, amid many complaints about government nepotism. The political tensions of recent years have acquired a religious and violent aspect, with a homegrown Islamist movement mounting a terrorist attack in September 2008 which injured twelve tourists. Even more fundamental is the existential threat of climate change, which makes the Maldives one of the most vulnerable nations on the planet.

How will Mohamed Nasheed cope? His testing political experience will be a huge asset: this England-educated son of a privileged family who chose to live in the packed heart of Malé has been at the forefront of the drive for change. He has battled Gayoom's government single-mindedly, heading street-protests and undergoing spells in jail, whilst simultaneously courting international diplomats and building the structures of the country's first political party, the MDP.

Now, after the move from prison to presidency, he must work with the diverse opposition alliance that was brought together for the purpose of fighting the elections in a context where the DRP (at least until the elections scheduled for February 2009) has a majority of seats in parliament. This will mean negotiating both with his own side and with his defeated opponents, while ruling an economically vulnerable nation with sky-high expectations of a new government. It will not be easy.

Moreover, the preconditions of oppression remain in the background. The Maldives was for centuries a sultanate, then a British protectorate until 1965; it became a republic only in 1968, and its two presidents since then have shown little difference from the sultans in their style of rule.

But the election also shows that the citizens of the Maldives are no longer prepared to accept rule by sultan-presidents. A generation forged by the protests of the early 2000s have used new technologies (such as mobile-phone networks) to share information about human-rights abuse, organise campaigns, break through social barriers, and challenge the powerful. They will not easily be subjugated.

This landmark election gives a new face to a country known to much of the world (if at all) for its tourist industry, its global-warming vulnerability - and its long dictatorship. Now it is striking out on a fresh course; and perhaps along the way setting a standard for many Islamic nations, with lessons for others besides.

The people of the Maldives have written a new chapter in their country's history, and even in the history of democracy. "Can you think of anywhere else it has happened - a dictator stepping down with dignity after a free election?" said one observer, who asked not to be named.  "I can't". Whatever happens from here, it is for the Maldives a proud and unforgettable moment.