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Volume 12 Number 1
New Delhi, Spring 2005

Democracy in the Maldives: Fact or Fiction?

- Fathimath Shimla
Columnist, Minivan News, Maldives

The Maldives held parliamentary elections on 22 January 2005. The elections were an important test for the Maldives’ septuagenarian President, Maumoon Gayoom, who - although had promised democratic reform - continues to be in power even after 27 years.

The British Foreign Minister had commented that the elections would be “the test” of the sincerity of a President who was severely criticised by the international community in September 2004 following the brutal crack-down on a peaceful pro-democratic rally in the capital, Male.

The elections went ahead but they were not elections that many would consider to be free and fair: political parties were banned; media was put under state control; public election speeches by candidates were forbidden; all election material was censored by the government; and the President simply appointed eight out of the fifty seats in the parliament and also the speaker, who is responsible for setting the parliamentary agenda.

The Commonwealth Secretariat had sent in an Expert Team (CET) to monitor the elections. Their report stopped short of using the words ‘free and fair’, and their findings were clear: “In conclusion, the CET believes that in the absence of a multi-party democracy, fundamental freedoms and separation of powers guaranteed by the Constitution and undermined by secondary legislation, Maldives would continue to have a democratic deficit.”

In such a system it was surprising to see that the democratic movement, headed by the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) – which operates from exile – did so well. The MDP in its mandate called for liberal democracy, a separation of powers, the rule of law and respect for human rights.

Although candidates were unable to stand on the MDP ticket, the party ‘endorsed’ candidates for the 42 elected seats a month prior to the voting. Eighteen of thosecandidates won – gaining some 43% of the elected seats in parliament. Party-endorsed candidates also won over fifty percent of the popular vote in a system which heavily disenfranchises urban areas – the MDP’s core support bases.

The European Union after the election observed “These elections are a clear sign that the population of the Maldives is in favour of democratic reforms. They showed indeed the existence of a large public support in the Maldives for the reformers and confirmed that the Maldivian Democratic Party is to be considered as a genuine political movement.” The MDP said that it could have doubled its number of seats had more democratic conditions prevailed.

With the economy of the Maldives dependent on European tourists and on international aid following the Tsunami crisis, Gayoom can’t afford to ignore the views of the international community. The pressure from both within the country and from outside for democratic change is becoming immense.

Gayoom has played his moves right. As the election results were being made public, the President’s Office repeated its commitment to reform. “Multi-party democracy within a year” ran the headlines, but many remain sceptical. This isn’t the first time Gayoom has said he’ll liberalise the political system but has gone ahead and done just the opposite.

Last July, in the wake of an unprecedented anti-government riot in the capital in late 2003, Gayoom announced a series of reform measures that were meant to transform his essentially dictatorial system into a flourishing democracy. The President said he was going to allow opposition political parties to voice their opinions, create a Supreme Court and the office of a Prime Minister. He encouraged the public to go forth and debate the sorts of changes they wanted to see.

Five weeks later, hundreds of those who went forth and held debates – the main topic of which seemed to be the desirability of Gayoom’s resignation - were arrested and according to reports of Amnesty International, tortured by Gayoom’s security services.

As the National Democratic Institute (NDI) – who went to the Maldives shortly after the arrests last year at the invitation of the government and the United Nations – said in their report: “The majority of the interviewees feel that the government lacks credibility with respect to reform. They ask how can the government be serious about reform, if in a history of 25 years it has failed miserably to bring about any semblance of democracy, if it invites people to discuss reform, and then detains those who are critical of it. Bold action will be required by the government to build confidence in any reform process.”

Aminath Najeeb is one of the growing number of well-educated and increasingly frustrated Maldivians trying to hold the President to his word. For the last six months she has made innumerable attempts to establish the first ever human rights non-governmental organisations in the Maldives. The ride has been far from smooth.

First they told me I couldn’t register the NGO because I had a criminal record but I have none. Then they said they couldn’t register the NGO because a co-founder had a criminal record but after investigating I found out that they were referring to a traffic offence from three years ago. Now I am being told that the NGO can’t be registered because the name, ‘Human Rights Maldives’, is incomplete. ”

Public assemblies in the Maldives, like political parties, remain banned, the media is still state-controlled and the country remains under an uneasy state of fear – and growing anger.

The President points out in his defense that his reform proposals are currently sitting with the People’s Special Majlis (constituent parliament) for debate and ratification but even this process, opposition figures fear are plain cosmetic.

“Democratic reform is being carried out in a very undemocratic manner” says Mohamed Nasheed, the newly elected Chairperson of the Maldivian Democratic Party and former Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience. “An undemocratic President is simply drafting a new constitution in his office and asking the parliament to rubber-stamp it. How can the parliament seriously debate the changes and counter the views of the President when political parties are banned? How can the public engage with the process when nobody is explaining the changes to them or asking them for their opinions? How can this process be regarded as transparent, inclusive or democratic?” he continues.

Critics also say that on a closer look many of the proposed changes are far from democratic although they sound nice. One proposed change is to create the position of a Prime Minister and Head of the Judiciary.

However, when one reads the small print, what the President is proposing is that he would be able to appoint and dismiss the Head of the Government and the Judiciary on the ‘advice’ of the Parliament. However, the term ‘advice’ in a Maldavian context simply means a debate in parliament in which no vote is recorded and, presumably, the President interprets the outcome. People point out that the so-called democratic reform proposals are nothing more than a well-packaged consolidation of the President’s powers.

There is also a fear that reforms lack an overarching agenda, a roadmap to democracy. Although expert advice is being provided by organisations such as the Commonwealth and the UN, it is being done only on highly restricted technical issues. There has been no independent assessment of the overarching process of reform, possibly allowing Gayoom to blame a failure to reform in future on a technical incompetence.

The election results, the independent assessments such as the NDI and CET report and the 15,000-strong pro-democracy rally last year all point to a country that is crying out for democracy. As the Commonwealth continues to search for its relevance in the 21st Century, helping the Maldives draft a genuine roadmap to democracy would be a relevant contribution.

Minivan news is an independent news channel for the Maldives which operates outside of the country. Visit it at


CHRI Newsletter, Spring 2005

Editors: Vaishali Mishra & Clare Doube, CHRI;
Print: Anshu Tejpal, Electronic:
Jyoti Bhargava, CHRI; Web Developer: Swayam Mohanty, CHRI.
Acknowledgement: Many thanks to all contributors

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The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) is an independent international NGO mandated to ensure the practical realisation of human rights in the Commonwealth.