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?
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.