May Day Rally 2013 / image from flickr @dyingregime

Democracy Derailed

Abdulla Faraz
Sep 27, 2013 · 14 min read

This is a brief sketch of how over a period of ten years, one set of background assumptions has been replaced by that of another. How that of system building & primacy of democracy has been replaced by seizure of power by any means necessary and scorched earth tactics, regardless of impact on democratic institutions. How reverence for democracy has been replaced by deceptive cynicism and manipulation. How an old idea about a objectified, malleable subject has returned with a vengeance in a new form to replace active, vigilant, citizenry. These combine together to create two different sets of values that are in conflict for supremacy. There are many different versions of this story. This is the version I find most compelling and convincing.

At times these sets have been shared across the political spectrum by various degrees, but as I write the contrast could not be any sharper. A few days ago, a JP coalition partner speaking at the H.Kunooz podium hailed Supreme Court’s decision to suspend elections, until they complete their inquiry in to the process, as progress for democracy. If we take this event as an isolated instance, it may seem to an outside observer that we should not be worried about a fair judicial inquiry in to the process. This was perhaps the United States’ stance, when it declared that all should respect the “judicial process”.

But we cannot isolate that instance from everything else that has happened, and is happening. It is hard to accept for us that Supreme Court has accepted a case with outrageous, ridiculous claims in good faith. The Supreme Court is not a wholly independent institution. It too has a history, memory, and power relations, that it cannot extricate itself from. The same goes for every other democratic institution in the country.

We must also, learn to recognize the fundamental shifts that have taken place, of behaviours, attitudes and values, driven by ideology, to a position where previous agents of democracy now wish to dismantle the entire framework. We must understand how things came to be. I write this because there are choices to be made, choices that will shape our future to come.

Our story begins ten years ago on a sunny September day like this, when we struck by the news of murder and killing in Maafushi Prison installation. The shock was followed by rioting and civil unrest in Male, as disenfranchised citizens took to the streets to torch & burn. In retrospect, this may be hard to understand, but if you were there, born in that system, felt the weight of oppression, of a present without a future, of walled enclosed horizons, it was hardly a matter of choice. This was perhaps not the beginning of voices calling for democracy, but provided the impetus for action, and represents a turning point in our history.

That September day led to the formation of Maldivian Democratic Party in Sri Lanka, and their campaign to bring democracy to the Maldives. By June of 2004, just seven months in to MDP’s campaign, President Gayoom had shuffled his cabinet, brought in some fresh blood known then as New Maldives (Hassan Saeed, Jameel and Ahmed Shaheed), and then went on TV to give a very short brief statement. He claimed “… [he] too were a reformer”, followed by a list of things he wished to change.

What followed was a long drawn process, under constant pressure from MDP, Gayoom conceded on a number of issues and new democratic spaces opened — a Special Constitutional Majlis was assembled for drafting a new constitution, parties were allowed to operate, and for the first time in our history free presses were allowed to operate.

This process of democratization has been described, following Huntington, as “transplacement”, as a process of negotiation between actors in the establishment and those challenging that establishment. But for our purposes, I think it is important to understand motivations and specific strategies employed by Gayoom’s regime to ward off MDP’s threat of destabilizing the autocratic regime.

Gayoom, bolstered the police with a new division called Special Operations to counter the threat of street protests. For Majlis and Special Majlis, he had the advantage of using his network of loyalists across the atolls to elect the candidates he wanted. All in all, his overall strategy was to absorb demands made by citizens, make cosmetic changes and render then passive long enough for him to survive, or in Gramscian terms “transformism”. Interestingly, the group called New Maldives would move on to other activities that would closely resemble Gramscian tactics, like recruiting intellectuals to their cohort.

Motivations for the Gayoom programme seems to have been to make as minimal changes as necessary, survive as long as possible, re-invent his image as father of democracy, and win the Presidential slot. Underlying these is a fundamental shift in behaviour and attitude towards politics. Whereas, pre-2003 Gayoom did not need to reinforce and bolster his democratic credentials (brute force did the work of convincing), now he had to refer back to democratic values and associate himself with it, however minimal his interpretation of democracy was. Prior to 2003, his ideological platform was built on a strong cohesive, homogeneous version of religious nationalism, of harmony and unity, which left little room for diversity of opinion. Now he had to concede that freedom of speech was fundamental to the creation of a modern state.

In effect, Gayoom was responding to a set of assumptions he had — that Maldivians wanted a democratic state, that democratic values was on the ascendancy and gaining primacy, that his autocratic regime was no longer sustainable in its current form because his ideological notions of nation and religion (Islamo-Nationalism hinged on his version of modernist Islam) were losing ground. Democracy and its related set of values were values he had to respond to, even if he had not assimilated them.

Meanwhile, MDP’s camp attracted a diverse range of actors with disparate backgrounds — victims of the autocratic regime, the disenfranchised, the educated middle-class, etc. All perhaps, bound through by one nodal point, one basic idea — that Maldives needed democratization — and that was the discursive centre around which much of debates happened. There certainly were differences within MDP and it’s associates, but that basic idea remained primal.

This back and forth between MDP and the autocratic regime opened up the space for other actors in the Maldives as well. Among these were Salafists and similar groups, which had long been victims of Gayoom’s oppression. The opening of participatory politics, paved the way for Islamist parties, with the formation of Adhaalath party.

Though, Islamist groups appreciated their new found freedoms, some radical Islamists remained quite skeptical of democracy itself, which they take to be an unsustainable ‘Western’ product that needs to be dislodged and replaced as soon as possible. These radical Islamists believed, and continue to have the belief that there is no inherent value to sustaining a democracy, it’s value is only as a means for a theocracy to come.

There is always a danger in speaking of Islamist groups as one monolithic bloc, that we stereotype and associate with anti-democratic radicalism and extremism. This would be fundamentally wrong. Even among the Salafists, and Islamists there remain quite a large number of people who see an inherent value in democracy, and democratic values like freedom of press and speech.

This could hardly be true for Adhaalath, and its ideologists. Between 2003 and 2008 on websites like Dharuma, and Noorul-Islam, Adhalaath’s main proponents continued to bash democratic values, human rights and what they saw as ‘westernization’. This was at a time when Adhaalath remained quite marginal politically. Their numbers hardly registered in elections. But since they comprised of all the educated elite within the Islamist discourse, they had direct impact on public opinion on Islamic issues. Adhaalath combined this with the ideological notion that they popularized, that Islamic matters must be addressed only by Islamic scholars, giving them a small but significant foothold from which to shape politics.

Yet, in Adhaalath’s strategy there was a momentary dialectical tension — even as they bashed democratic values and human rights, they were tacitly affirming democracy in their practice, by giving sermons and speeches, by forming associations, by forming parties, by holding debates, and opinion forming councils. More explicitly, they were embracing a limited form of democracy; a polyarchy within themselves where the educated elite or sheikhs were freely forming opinions , debating and dispersing that opinion, which could be described in Islamic terms as shura. This was hardly possible before, under Maumoon’s brutal regime. There were perverse limitations to this opinion forming process, of course, but that is another article altogether.

In addition, Adhaalath’s position was conflated with struggles over identity (“West vs. us”, “true Muslim”, “modernity vs. a return”, etc) and struggles between Islamic discourses. What this means is that, at any given moment, they must factor in multiple variables in their calculation, of which being democratic or not, is just one variable, and hence Adhaalath’s position is not simply reducible to the binary, anti-democratic vs. pro-democratic.

In the second round of the 2008 Presidential elections Adhaalath joined up with MDP as did Hassan Saeed, Ibra, and Gasim. MDP won the elections and Nasheed took over as President in a smooth transition of power. This was the first free and fair elections to take place in the Maldives, and an important step forward for democratic consolidation.

Even though MDP, the main proponent of democracy, had just 25% of the popular vote in this first round, this show of solidarity by the various parties, with different ideologies against the autocratic regime, was important ideologically for democracy itself.

In the ensuing years much of the debate would be framed through the language of liberal democracy, debates centered on the issue of whether that certain problem was of nature democratic, constitutional, corrupt etc. In the background, democratic ideology had been asserted as primal — that which shapes values, behaviours and attitudes.

Meanwhile, other institutions of democracy were making progress. There were multiple free newspapers, magazines, TV channels, radio stations, civil society groups were forming, independent commissions were formed, and most importantly a free and fair election had been completed. Yet, within three short years there would be a dramatic reversal.

Gayoom left behind a vast network of loyalists that still paid him tutelary respect, within the government machinery, police and military. In addition, DRP, Gayoom’s party and it’s allies would make inroads by taking the majority in the Majlis elections and this was to affect the composition of the Supreme Court, where the majority is held by old Gayoom loyalists. In effect, Gayoom still cast a vast grey shadow over Maldives, and had indirect control over institutions, even though the Presidential election was won by Nasheed.

Nasheed’s reform efforts were hampered from the very outset due to the worsening global economic crisis in 2008/2009. Tourist inflows slowed, and the government was left holding a huge deficit. At the recommendation of IMF, Nasheed would initiate plans to reduce and control civil service costs — his first run-in with a major Gayoom clientele.

Nearly 40% of all employment in the Maldives is created within the civil service, and it’s rumoured that no government has ever been able to gauge its true finances. Because of this large bureaucracy, some have described Maldives’ situation as a Rentier State.

A Rentier State is a state with a large source of revenue from natural resources, such that it is not dependent on tax from its citizens. The corollary to that is the government uses this inflow to create a dependent bureaucracy for employment, and a large military to pacify its citizens. Thus the theory says, because the government does not tax its citizens, citizens cannot make direct demands from the government, and in case they do, the government will use the huge military to silence their voices. This amounts to a very persuasive explanation of the long and stable thirty year dictatorship of Gayoom.

Following the economic crisis, attempts to change the civil service salary structure would back-fire as civil service association would take the government to court. The economic crisis also affected small businesses, civil society and the free press, and as media sources dwindled, the gap would be filled by media funded by resort owning oligarchs, primarily Haveeru, Sun, DhiTV, DhiFM & VTV.

The media funded by resort owning oligarchs, and Gayoom’s political parties worked hand-in hand, and together they would leverage the disaffection during the dollar crisis to form a bulwark against Nasheed & MDP. Working with the media, using Majlis and the Supreme Court as instruments, Gayoom’s loyalists would manufacture issue after issue, to which MDP could not adequately respond. We can recall here a number of issues like the introduction of GST, Aasandha, and many others. In the worsening crisis, economic and political, MDP lost crucial voting blocs, most significantly in Male (as has been evident in the first round of 2013 Presidential elections).

It’s important to note the transitions in background values, behaviours and attitude that occur at this point with the consolidation of media sources funded heavily by the resort owning oligarchs, and in the way these media were used, between 2009/2010.

With the twilight of Gayoom’s oppressive era circa 2003, a number of media outlets came in to being. What these new sources brought was the idea of an active citizen, who would inform themselves of issues, join debates, and challenge the status quo. The background idea was of liberation from chains, awakening from darkness, and activity against passivity, apathy and lethargy. The idea hinged on the potential capacity of these citizens to free themselves, to know right from wrong and decide for themselves.

What the resort owning oligarchs brought back circa 2009/2010 was the idea of a top down bullhorn, a blunt object to manipulate an objectified, malleable, subject, but with a slight twist that was different from Gayoom’s. The notion was that listeners or viewers had no independent capacity to form opinions of their own, and would be receptive to the way media primes and conditions them with their language. They were careful to use the language of democracy, to manipulate conditions in favour of the resort owning oligarchs. And in this way they would demand action against Nasheed’s administration. In other words, they were mobilizing crowds to protect the status quo that benefits the resort owning oligarchs. They would manufacture crisis in order to claim that such and such were “unconstitutional”, against “free speech”, etc. Unlike Gayoom, they were no longer demanding passivity, but using liberation language to undermine democratic institutions. They were undermining democratic institutions, but were using the language of democracy. It was blatantly cynical and manipulative.

The next turning point in our story would come late in 2011, with Adhaalath leaving Nasheed’s administration, joining the opposition and the formation of the 23 December Ithihaad. This turn brought with it a whole new language, and would fundamentally change and eject the primacy of democratic ideology. The battle ground would shift from a terrain where “democracy was the only game in town” to one where democracy itself had to battle an anti-democratic Islamo-Nationalism.

The new Islamo-Nationalism that was emerging was nothing similar to the old Islamo-Nationalism of Gayoom. One has to make the distinction here, that this ideology that was emerging was quite different from all the things that had inspired it. It was in a sense overdetermined by a number of movements, histories and trends, and situated firmly within the particularities of our politics. Adhaalath brought with it the language of globalist Salafism, and political Islam. Yet, what they preached on the podiums had little to do with Salafism; it was addressing a Maldivian subject, within the confines of a Maldivian history, promoting a particularly Maldivian political project — that of challenging Nasheed. Gayoom’s progeny, PPM & DRP, brought with it the memory of a stable thirty years, and used the language of nationalism — sovereignty, independence, militarism, harmony, unity, etc. The 23rd December Ithihaad that emerged used our collective memory and fears, promoting xenophobia and isolationism. The movement was in continuity with a certain history, also a discontinuity, and a break from our past.

23rd December Itihaad’s anti-democratic turn would come after the 7th February 2012's coup d’état. Up until then, they were still using the language of constitutionalism, democracy and so on. But after the coup, not having much to rely on after pulling off an anti-democratic coup, and firmly challenged by MDP, they would drop all pretense of being democratic, and rely solely on Islamo-Nationalism — that language of sovereignty, unity, harmony, Islamic identity, etc. They must’ve realized that it was a losing battle, and needed to alter the board itself, to survive. What we are left with is a severe reversal of the democratic project.

After the coup, Hassan Saeed was caught on tape saying that this was a “unique coup”. But, there is exactly nothing unique about the reversal of fortune for democracy in the Maldives, and it follows quite closely with cases studied in democracy consolidation literature. According to scholars who have studied democratic consolidation, where democratic transition takes place not through direct replacement, but in a negotiated transfer of power, old regimes continue to hold vested interests in state institutions and perverse informal institutions, as a guarantee against persecution. And at times these old dictators have used these institutions to upend the democratic project. This is exactly the case in Maldives, where Nasheed was given a poisoned chalice.

In this post-election debacle today, what we are witnessing is an attempt by the members of the 23rd December Ithihaad at a systematic destruction of the last standing democratic institution — the electoral system.

The election was monitored by international bodies, the counting were done in front of party representatives. There are no significant issues with the voter’s registry. Yet, the counting was followed by VTV’s campaign to create doubt about the election results, as these media funded by resort owning oligarchs have done similarly in the past. The Supreme Court, infiltrated by Gayoom’s loyalists, has intervened and is deliberately delaying the runoff election. Adhaalath is using its ideological tools to campaign against Nasheed and Elections Commission. How this is a religious message is beyond me. The police and military are being deployed to pacify those demanding for an immediate runoff election.

The conclusion writes itself. We demand our right to vote!

This is Maldives

Politics at the end of the world.

    Abdulla Faraz

    Written by

    subject qua void

    This is Maldives

    Politics at the end of the world.