There are few politicians like Mohamed Nasheed. The young, charismatic journalist turned statesman endured years of exile, torture and solitary confinement to lead a grassroots and peaceful movement for democracy in the Maldives. His struggle was defined by the most unlikely vision for his island nation, that of a liberal democracy in a deeply conservative, and Islamic country.
Nasheed, known affectionately as ‘Anni’ amongst his supporters overturned three decades of autocracy under President Gayoom when he became the country’s first elected leader in 2008. Perhaps more importantly he governed as a true statesman. Leading the world on climate change, he pledged to make the low lying country one of the first to go carbon-neutral. Nasheed went on to limit his own power as president, and knocked down the political prisons that had held him and hundreds like him captive.
Ultimately, the way in which ‘Anni’ governed would lead to the abrupt and premature end to his presidency a month ago. His commitment to tackle corruption at every level of public and private life, and to democratise tourism in the Maldives would make him many powerful enemies in the country. The toxic legacy of Gayoom was the network of corrupt and nepotistic individuals, in particular within the judiciary and the police who saw Nasheed as a threat to a once comfortable way of life.
What took place a month ago was an organised, and perfectly executed coup d’état. Vice President Mohammed Waheed took power after Nasheed was forced to resign “at gunpoint” following a police mutiny. Waheed in turn welcomed numerous Gayoom loyalists to his new government, not least the dictator’s daughter as a minister for foreign affairs. Gayoom himself is now set to return to the country from Malaysia in the coming days.
The people of Maldives then, having apparently emerged from “the dregs of dictatorship” once again must face up to intimidation, and police brutality for peaceful and non-violent freedom of expression. Deprived of their elected leader, we are once again witnessing the mobilisation of a popular movement for early elections. Despite political intimidation tens of thousands of ordinary men and women are speaking out for their right to vote in this tiny and truly exceptional island nation.
These calls have been echoed by the European Union and the Commonwealth, with organisations such as Amnesty International now monitoring the situation. There are some promising signs that Mohammed Waheed may indeed call early elections, bowing to popular pressure and the numerous demonstrations in the past month led by Nasheed.
The Maldives then is a small country, but one with a massive principle at stake. ‘Anni’ and the people of the Maldives demonstrated the power of the idea of governance by consent, and did so long before the term ‘Arab Spring’ was ever coined. However the past weeks have shown the true power of the autocratic legacy. Networks of powerful, opportunistic people, who enjoyed the comforts of dictatorship, are unwilling to give them up lightly.
- Justin Kempley