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The Maldives: a serial coup in progress?

Should Britain, the United States and others who claim to be concerned, stand by and allow reactionary forces to stage-manage a phony election, this sends yet another inconsistent and disheartening message to those struggling for peaceful democratic change in the Islamic world and beyond. 

In the latest episode of what appears to be a serial coup in the Maldives, the country’s Supreme Court - apparently at the behest of allies of the former dictator,  Islamists, and powerful business figures - threw out the results of the first round of presidential elections just hours before the scheduled date of the second round in which pro-democracy leader Mohamed Nasheed was expected to win handily.   

On October 10, the Court also invalidated all registered voters (the greatest number of whom had supported Nasheed) and called for the re-registration of everyone who wished to participate in a new presidential election, which they scheduled for October 19, only nine days later. This has raised concerns that the rushed and largely unsupervised re-registration process will allow anti-democratic forces to add the names of non-existent supporters of their candidates to the rolls while purging large numbers of Nasheed supporters.

The Economist, noting that the police were getting “suspiciously strong powers of oversight” in the repeat election, observed that the impact of the ruling of the Court, dominated by appointees of a former dictator, is that “the crooked and the powerful are telling voters to go away and try again until they come up with a different result. ”

The failure of the United States, Great Britain, India, and other international actors to make a more forceful stand in support of a transparent and comprehensively monitored democratic process in the Maldives has raised fears that the anti-democratic forces may get away with it.

The current political crisis is part of an ongoing pro-democracy struggle in the Indian Ocean archipelago which goes back to the emergence of a nonviolent resistance campaign in the 1990s against the corrupt and authoritarian former president Mahmoud Gayoom, who ruled for nearly thirty years.  Using many of the same strategies and tactics of civil resistance which have brought down scores of dictators around the world in recent decades, the movement - whose most prominent leader was then journalist and human rights activist Mohamed Nasheed - eventually forced the regime, along with the threat of international sanctions, to hold free and fair elections in October 2008, which Nasheed and his Maldivian Democratic Party won easily.

As president, Nasheed governed as an advocate of democratic rights, tax reform, anti-corruption initiatives, and sustainable development, and became internationally prominent as an advocate for concrete action to fight climate change, which is resulting in rising sea levels which threaten the very existence of his low-lying nation.

In February of last year, in response to his efforts to challenge vestiges of the old dictatorship in the security services and the courts, Nasheed was forced to resign in a coup in which his family was threatened.  His vice-president allied himself with the supporters of the former dictator’s regime and a crackdown commenced against Nasheed and his supporters.

However, the Maldivian people, instead of meekly accepting a return to corrupt autocratic rule or taking up arms, renewed their nonviolent protests, pressuring the provisional government to allow for presidential elections, which occurred on September 7. As a result of apparent ballot stuffing and other fraudulent procedures documented by independent journalists and other observers, Nasheed fell just short of a majority, thereby requiring a runoff, which was scheduled for September 28.

 Despite the reported ballot tampering, the United Nations, the United States, and the European Union ruled the first round free and fair. Nevertheless, Nasheed seemed a very likely winner in the run-off election, against the second place finisher, Abdullah Yameen, half-brother of deposed dictator Gayoom.  However, Qasim Ibrahim, a wealthy business tycoon who finished just behind Yameen in third place according to the official results, went to court insisting that he had actually come in second and should therefore be on the ballot to challenge Nasheed in the second and final round.

Instead of recognizing that an honest count would have resulted in Nasheed’s outright election as president in the first round and thereby make the fight for second place moot, and invalidating the alleged 5,600 improper votes, a divided Supreme Court instead chose last week to nullify the entire election, thereby cancelling the scheduled second round just hours before Nasheed was expected to win.  

Interestingly, the majority verdict was apparently based on a secret police report alleging the existence of those fraudulent ballots, a report that was not shown to the Elections Commission.  As a result, the Commission, which had certified the initial results, was unable to present a counter-argument.  Furthermore, no lawyers from Nasheed’s party were allowed to participate in the proceedings.

Nasheed’s opponents - consisting primarily of allies of the former dictator and powerful business interests - recognize that if Nasheed becomes president, they will likely be subject to the rule of law, and that the international community may be less tolerant in the future of the almost comical manipulation of the democratic process that Nasheed’s foes have been pursuing for well over a year.  As a relatively young, popular, democratic modernizer, Nasheed represents the hope of Maldivians for a nation whose income and civil society aren’t dominated by an old, self-serving autocratic order.

In response to the cancelled election, pro-democracy activists have engaged in strikes and other protests. Meanwhile, the real motives of Nasheed’s fellow contenders have become increasingly visible. Yameen’s running mate,  Mohamed Jameel Ahmed, declared that the “Maldives can never have stability through elections which has opposition Maldivian Democratic Party presidential candidate Mohamed Nasheed’s name on the ballot. We will not hand over [power] through an election, [we] will not hand over even if he gets elected.”   Their party is petitioning the Supreme Court to prevent Nasheed from running in the  repeat election on the grounds of his criticisms of the judiciary and claims that he is “irreligious.”  Meanwhile, arsonists attacked and damaged a television station aligned with the pro-democracy forces.

On October, 10, UK foreign secretary William Hague noted that while he was “worried by recent reports of intimidation, violence, arrests and arson attacks which have taken place in the past days,” the Foreign Office has “acknowledged positively” the snap new election and re-registration of voters.  That same day, in what appears to have been the first formal statement by the US State Department throughout the crisis, a spokesperson stated, "We continue to urge a peaceful political process that is inclusive of all candidates in order to ensure the Maldivian election that will meet international standards of an elected, legitimate democracy." 

Both the British and American governments have issued similar platitudes about autocratic regimes with which they’ve been friendly in the past, however, with little effect.  Much of what is motivating the anti-democratic forces is their desire to continue controlling the country’s two largest sources of income: tourism and fisheries. Only through concrete action, such as demanding full access by foreign election observers and noting the possibility of international sanctions in case of a full democratic break-down   (e.g. encouraging tourists to avoid the Maldives and to boycott Maldivian exports) - will the forces trying to thwart the leading candidate get the message that they cannot get away with denying the Maldivian people their democratic rights for a third time in less than two years.

The failure thus far of Britain, the United States, and other influential international actors to respond more decisively is pathetic.  Election fraud should not be a concern only if the country is sizable and well-known or if the government opposes western policies.  There are certain democratic principles the application of which are universal, regardless of the geopolitical value of the country at risk of losing its opportunity to become a stable democracy.

Furthermore, a country dependent on western aid, investment, and tourism would be a case in which governments which purport to believe in democracy can have undoubted influence. Indeed, if Britain and the United States had made clear there would be serious economic consequences to improper efforts to block Nasheed’s election, the corrupt officials who are now apparently plotting to block his victory would not have risked the kind of brazen interference with the election process we have seen so far.

What happens in the Maldives represents an important precedent.  It is a Muslim country where a dictatorial regime was brought down through a disciplined nonviolent pro-democracy campaign; where the leader of the unarmed movement was elected president and became a global leader in the fight against climate change, perhaps the biggest single threat to international security; and, where that democratically-elected president was deposed in a coup by forces allied with the former dictator but once again was projected into contention by the nonviolent action of the people themselves… 

Should the powers that claim to be concerned stand by and allow reactionary forces to stage-manage a phony election, it would send the message that western rhetoric about supporting democracy in Muslim countries is meaningless. It would send yet another inconsistent and disheartening message to those struggling for peaceful democratic change in the Islamic world and beyond. 

About the author

Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, where he coordinates the Middle Eastern Studies program, and co-chairs the academic advisory committee for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

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