Model for Democ­racy

Could the In­dian Ocean par­adise of the Mal­dives, which claims to be a work­ing democ­racy, serve as a model for the Jas­mine rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies of the Arab world?

Southasia - - Region - By Huma Iqbal

Mo­hamed Nasheed, the dap­per young pres­i­dent of the Mal­dives, in a re­cent state­ment said that per­haps the jas­mine rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies of the Arab world may have some­thing to learn from his own small coun­try’s tran­si­tion to democ­racy which sounds too good to be true.

The Arab world shares a com­mon his­tory with that of the Mal­dives. The tran­si­tion to democ­racy was not a bumps-free jour­ney for this In­dian Ocean ar­chi­pel­ago. The Is­land saw the ouster of its own strong­man, Mau­moon Ab­dul Gay­oom, just two years ago. Gay­oom, who had ruled as pres­i­dent for three decades and earned the ti­tle of be­ing the longestrul­ing head of any gov­ern­ment in Asia, jailed and tor­tured his oppo- nents along the way, un­til he was even­tu­ally per­suaded in 2008 to hold a free elec­tion which brought the op­po­si­tion to power.

Lately, Pres­i­dent Nasheed has urged the Arab revo­lu­tion­ists to not rush to an elec­tion with­out first al­low­ing time for the for­ma­tion of sta­ble po­lit­i­cal par­ties. Cit­ing the ex­am­ple of his own nation, he ar­gued that any

elec­toral process should be held only af­ter a con­sti­tu­tion is in place. He also ar­gued that Is­lam and democ­racy are not in con­flict and if democ­racy can sur­vive in the Mal­dives it can sur­vive in other Is­lamic coun­tries as well.

On the face of it, his claims sound jus­ti­fied. Since its first multi-party pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, the Mal­dives held a par­lia­men­tary poll in 2009 and then lo­cal elec­tions in 2010. How­ever, there are sev­eral ob­sta­cles to pre­vent true democ­racy from flour­ish­ing in this ar­chi­pel­ago. The op­po­si­tion­con­trolled par­lia­ment (ma­jlis) has been in a con­stant tus­sle with the gov­ern­ment, hin­der­ing the gov­ern­ment from func­tion­ing at all, lead­ing in mid 2010 to the res­ig­na­tion of the cabi­net in protest. Time and again, the ma­jlis has been self-im­pos­ing and rigid, thereby serv­ing as an im­ped­i­ment to democ­racy. Re­li­gious ex­trem­ism is an­other grave dan­ger which con­tin­ues to haunt the present gov­ern­ment.

De­spite its rep­u­ta­tion as an In­dian Ocean par­adise, the 1,200 white sand and co­ral is­lands are no stranger to un­rest, ri­ots and at­tempted coups. A bomb­ing in­ci­dent first took place in 2007 when ter­ror­ists det­o­nated a bomb in the cap­i­tal Male’s Sul­tan Park, in­jur­ing 12 tourists. For­eign concern mounted when a video posted on an al Qaeda-linked web­site called for more at­tacks.

The gov­ern­ment has time and again in­sisted that there was no ev­i­dence that in­ter­na­tional ter­ror net­works had in­fil­trated the coun­try. How­ever, one of the ter­ror­ists who at­tacked In­dia’s com­mer­cial cap­i­tal, Mum­bai, in Novem­ber 2008, killing more than 150 peo­ple, was ru­mored to be a Mal­di­vian. There have also been re­ports about ar­rests of young men who have been taken into cus­tody and are al­leged to be re­ceiv­ing train­ing by ex­trem­ists in Pak­istan.

Be­sides grow­ing ex­trem­ism, there are other rea­sons too which put Pres­i­dent Nasheed’s tall claims of peace­ful democ­racy in doubt. For many Western­ers, the Mal­dives rep­re­sents the peak of as­pi­ra­tional tourism but lurk­ing be­hind this facade is a grim story of poverty and ex­ploita­tion. While a ho­tel room can cost up to £8,700 per night, 40 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion live on less than $1 per day.

Liv­ing con­di­tions for most Mal­di­vians are akin to those in sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa. A sur­vey con­ducted by the Tourism Em­ploy­ees As­so­ci­a­tion of the Mal­dives (TEAM) showed that ba­sic work­ers’ pay ranges from $80-$120 per month, al­though even the very low­est-end re­sorts have an an­nual in­come of $3-4mil­lion. Fish­ing stocks are hugely de­pleted and fresh fruit and veg­eta­bles by­pass lo­cal res­i­dents, go­ing di­rectly to tourist is­lands. The UN re­cently found that over 30 per cent of Mal­di­vian chil­dren un­der the age of five suf­fer from mal­nu­tri­tion.

The un­em­ploy­ment ra­tio is also shock­ingly high. Many young peo­ple ei­ther lack the skills to work, or are un­will­ing to do so: a 2005 re­port found that 22 per cent of men and 41 per cent of women aged 15-24 were unem­ployed. Sub­se­quently, an im­mi­grant work­force of 40,000 im­ported from Sri Lanka and Bangladesh pro­vides cheap la­bor. To make mat­ters worse, UNICEF es­ti­mate that 10 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion use drugs, nearly half of them us­ing heroin where the av­er­age age of first time users is just 12.

Na­tions can only thrive when the so­cial fab­ric of their so­ci­eties is in­tact. The lat­est fig­ures have placed Mal­dives’ capita per in­come at $4,200, putting it at the high­est of any coun­try in South Asia. How­ever, it is no longer clas­si­fied in the UN’s “least de­vel­oped coun­try” cat­e­gory. How much any of the Mal­dives’ suc­cesses can be repli­cated in the coun­tries of North Africa is open to de­bate. Huma Iqbal is an As­sis­tant Edi­tor at the SouthAsia Mag­a­zine. She writes on so­cio-po­lit­i­cal and de­vel­op­men­tal is­sues of the re­gion.

Mo­hamed Nasheed, Pres­i­dent of the Mal­dives.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Pakistan

© PressReader. All rights reserved.