When democracy globally has been tilting towards populism and bordering on autocracy, Maldives has shown that the future is not to despair. Democratic forces will usher in corrective measures when the time is appropriate. The whiff of fresh democratic air announcing the triumph of the people’s will over authoritarian leaders saw the combined opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih winning a landslide mandate in the recently-held election. The tiny island nation has sounded the trumpet of people’s choice over populist leaders who sought to subvert democracy.
The world today is in turmoil. Everywhere, there is a tendency to tilt towards autarky, beginning from Europe where seeds of democracy were sown to the US where democracy took a firm root and elsewhere in the world where there were signs of democracy sprouting only a few years ago. Many felt that democracy is now at risk. Leaders who took centre-stage by mobilising the restlessness of the young, fed the opium that closed doors are preferred over a fast-developing global socio-political-economic network since a globalised democracy is a barrier for their aspirations and achievements.
This created a divided world where, even within deeply-rooted democratic systems, we now see strife between liberal and indoctrinated voices, a systematic violation of established norms and weakening of institutions originally created to safeguard peoples’ choice in a democracy. It came to such a dreadful pass that many thought would be the end of liberal democracy.
Maldives has brought in an elixir of hope amidst such despair. Democracy is not wilting away. As in the final speech of the main protagonist in the film, The Great Dictator, Maldives too seems to have announced, “To those who can hear me, I say, do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed – the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish…”
It may seem that liberal democracy is ebbing. This impression gains ground since an autocrat, once elected, tramples people down as long as the mandate runs. But the greatness of democracy is that people have their election day to amend the aberration. They come in large numbers to register their opinion through ballot boxes.
Maldivians did this on September 23. They came out in large numbers to record their dissent, resulting in a massive voter turnout—89.22 percent—the highest ever in the history of the island nation. The democratic system in Maldives is relatively new. Following independence from British rule in 1965, Maldives opted to turn a republic. Democracy took time to have firm roots in the fledgling island nation. There were several twists and turns with vested business interests attempting to hold on to their authority, even by engineering armed rebellion and several assassination attempts on Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the second president who stabilised the economy and also drafted a new constitution.
The credit goes to him for instituting a directly elected presidential system. Under his watch, Maldives had its first direct election for the post of president. Evidently, democracy dug roots through his effort and Mohamed Nasheed won the presidential election in 2008, defeating Gayoom, the architect of Maldives’ democratic process. Presidents that came after 2008 failed to stitch together a durable democratic force to build on the foundation laid by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Hence, the hopes and dreams of Maldivians now lies with President-elect Ibrahim Solih.
In 2013, Abdulla Yameen took over as the president in a close contest, with a majority of 51 percent opposed to Nasheed’s 49 percent. Unfortunately, Yameen attempted to subvert democracy without realising the degree of popularity it had gained among Maldivians. The autocrat in Yameen was so overpowering that he attempted to throttle democracy by imposing emergency, imprisoning stalwart leaders of the country and gagging all possible dissent. Clearly. it was an attempt to intimidate the citizens so that he could win the mandate again this year. What he failed to realise is that citizens are well aware of their rights and duties. Maldivians emerged in huge numbers to exercise their franchise.
One clear trend that emerged from all democratic elections held across most countries is that voters register their choice clearly. They oust whom they do not trust and do not hesitate to cut down to size even their popular choice. It’s not always that the popular choice matches those of veteran analysts. This happens due to loss of trust among a section of the population. This is a natural consequence of the fast-moving, global socio-economic scene. A restlessness arising out of the trust deficit helps autocrats win power through their skilled campaign. But as Maldives has shown, people cannot be deceived always. The wide margin of victory for the winning candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih clearly established the triumph of democracy over attempt to manipulate public opinion.
Geographically, Maldives is the world’s ‘lowest’ country. Our average ground-level elevation is just 1.5 meters above sea level. Maldives’ highest natural point, at only 2.4 meters, is the lowest in the world. We are proud that we Maldivians have held aloft the flag of democracy when many in the world have been busy lamenting the receding tide of liberal democracy.
(The writer is an ex-minister of foreign affairsof Maldives. She is also the daughter of Maldives’ former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. This article is written exclusively for the South Asian Monitor. Her Twitter handle is @dunyamaumoon)