I knew nothing about the Maldives until it popped into the news this week, but what I’m seeing there now looks very familiar, as it should to anyone who studies how new democratic regimes so often sputter and fail.
The Republic of Maldives is a tiny archipelago state off the southern tip of India with a population of only about 314,000. Fish are its leading export, but its economy depends most heavily on beach tourism. The Maldives gained independence from the British in 1965 and was ruled for most of the ensuing 45 years by one man, Mamoun Abdul Gayoom. Years of pro-democracy activism finally spurred the government to open the door to multiparty politics in 2003, and the state became a democracy in 2008 when its first free and fair elections delivered the presidency to longtime activist leader Mohamed Nasheed.
The 2008 elections terminated a long period of authoritarian rule, but they did not instantly transform the fundamentals of the political economy that developed under al-Gayoom’s government. That transformation would require deeper change, and President Nasheed’s efforts to bring about those reforms seem to be what recently got him into trouble. In 2010, the New York Times reported:
The government of the Maldives wants its money back — $400 million to be precise. That is the amount that it estimates was looted by its former president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, and his associates. Mr. Gayoom dominated politics in the Maldives, a tiny Indian Ocean nation, for 30 years. After winning six successive single-party elections, he finally bowed to popular pressure and allowed open elections in 2008. He lost. He is one of a number of politically connected figures — some alive, others dead — who are the targets of increasingly coordinated efforts to repatriate misappropriated funds. Results to date have been encouraging, but much more can be done, officials and development experts say. A report from the Maldives’ national auditor released in 2009 reads like a guidebook on self-enrichment. The president’s spending was “out of control,” it said, as Mr. Gayoom used his power to live a lavish lifestyle and extend largesse to those around him.
As President Nasheed’s administration struggled “to get its money back,” it found its efforts impeded. When the president tried to overcome one small piece of that resistance by ordering the arrest of an uncooperative criminal court judge, the judge refused to go, and the president’s opponents took to the streets to protest. The Times described the final spiral this way:
Recently, Mr. Nasheed’s popularity has suffered as the economy of the Maldives has struggled. Then, last month, Mr. Nasheed ordered the military to arrest the criminal court judge, Abdulla Mohamed, accusing the judge of acting on behalf of Mr. Gayoom and compromising the fairness of the country’s courts. The arrest, which was widely condemned, prompted the nightly protests in Male that peaked on Monday. “The real catalyst, last night, was that the police decided that they wouldn’t disperse the protesters,” said Mohamed Hussain Shareef, the spokesman for Mr. Gayoom’s party, the Progressive Party of Maldives. Mr. Shareef contended that soldiers had balked as well as the police. “We were told that the army was also asked to disperse the protesters using live rounds,” he said. The Associated Press reported that troops had initially fired rubber bullets. S. Ahmed Shiyam, a police subinspector in Male, said there were clashes between police officers and soldiers on Monday evening and early Tuesday morning, with some of the protesters joining on the police side. Then some soldiers switched sides as well, he said. An official close to Mr. Nasheed denied that the president had ordered soldiers to fire on the protesters. Rather, he said, the president chose to resign specifically to avoid such violence. “He faced the choice of seeing a lot of blood by asking the military to crack down,” said the official, who asked not to be identified, given the political volatility of the moment. “But he wasn’t prepared to do that.”
What seems apparent from the bits of information I’ve been able to find is that political polarization had amped up long before the recent showdown over judge Mohamed. Some of that polarization seems to have resulted from an economic slowdown that hit the Maldives in 2011, some from a disagreement over the proper role of Islam in politics, but surely some also resulted from the new government’s attempts to discover and dismantle the networks of patronage and corruption left over from the ancien regime. Presidential elections were due in 2012, and President Nasheed’s move against judge Mohamed apparently strengthened their belief that he was willing to do whatever it would take to cement his continuation in office and continue his fight against their interests.
These are the familiar and formidable challenges of democratic consolidation. New democracies are not drawn on blank slates. The development of democratic institutions that persist usually requires a transformation of deeper arrangements in which powerful groups are heavily invested. Wealthy individuals and powerful bureaucrats must be convinced to subject their sinecures to the rule of laws adopted by representatives they do not choose. Men with guns must be convinced that they will be better off refraining from picking sides in partisan fights or seizing direct control of government when they don’t like how much money it spends on them or what it tells them to do.
For democracy to survive under these conditions, political and military leaders have to gain confidence that every political confrontation is not a gladiatorial death match, and that their rivals can’t or won’t try to win those confrontations by simply usurping power and demolishing the arena. This trust is impossible to manufacture. It seems instead to rise and decline fitfully, and the confrontations whose successful resolution might deepen that trust more often lead instead to resumptions of authoritarian rule. We can recognize and even vaguely understand all of this and still not know how to make it happen differently.
So what usually happens instead is what happened this week in the Maldives. Motivated by mixtures of ambition and fear, partisan rivals get stuck in a downward spiral of distrust that leads eventually to an undemocratic resolution. These resolutions often take the form of a military coup, where the guys with guns decide to take matters into their own hands or, as in the Maldives, side with the rebellious opposition. In many other cases, the confrontation is resolved by executive coup, where incumbent officials ensure their continuation in power by tightening the screws on their political rivals or just rigging or scrapping elections. Opposition parties sometimes rebel, but those rebellions very rarely succeed; instead, they are usually either quashed or hijacked by a collaboration of opportunistic political insiders and state security forces.
Anyone who cares about the fate of new democracies in Egypt, Tunisia, or really anywhere should care about this pattern, because it foretells the likely futures of those regimes. I don’t mean this to be a declaration of helplessness in the face of these patterns as much as a frank assessment of the depth of the challenges involved. As I’ve said before, I’m a short-term pessimist but a long-term optimist. In their brilliant overview of political development throughout recorded history, Douglass North, John Wallis, and Barry Weingast drly note (p. 27) that “historic transitions [of the sort described here] occurred within relatively brief periods, typically about fifty years.” Replace that last comma with a pause for comic timing, and you get a better sense of what I have in mind.
PS. For detailed reporting on the coup and the spiral of events leading to it, see this story by Bryson Hull for Reuters.