The Problem with Solih & Democracy – Demagogues and Authoritarianism in Maldives. By Hamdhan Shakeel

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One of the most important variables in gauging a nation’s prosperity is how well their democracy has been developed. And it goes vice versa as prosperity is also vital to sustaining democracy. After all, it is a prosperous society which can think and make informed decisions on national issues. In this context, are we in the Maldives prosperous? Do we have a healthy democracy?

Undeniably, democracy in the Maldives is backsliding. But, how did we come to our current situation?

Left for itself, democracy is bound to backslide as it is fundamentally flawed    it is not self-sustaining. Democracy must be vigilantly defended to ensure that anti-democratic elements are barred from disrupting and abusing the system. But the fundamental problem with democracy is that, it provides an equal platform for demagogues and authoritarians to compete against politicians who adhere to the principles of democracy.

For demagogues and authoritarians, there is no line which they would not cross in their pursuit of power. This would mean that for politicians who are bound by the restraints set in place by the principles and spirit of democracy, would be at a disadvantage. The demagogue would not hesitate to defame, or outright lie about the incumbent administration to tilt the playing field in their favor. This is how President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih came into power.

President Solih’s rise to power and his abuse of constitutional powers is in some aspects, eerily similar to former Peruvian dictator Alberto Fujimori’s regime. Prior to his lection as the President, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih spent 24 years in Parliament. He had a remarkably mediocre career in which he did not propose any profound bills to the parliament nor made any compelling arguments in any of the intense debates which took place during a time of extreme political turmoil. In fact, throughout the 24 years, he is recorded to have refrained from speaking within the parliament for roughly half of the years he was there. Nobody expected the nobody to get the Presidential ticket. But an unlikely alliance with a prominent family, and the absence of the President of the ruling party meant that, he was at the right place at the right time.

Fast forward to the election and Ibrahim Mohamed Solih unveiled his demagoguery as he made allegations which have following investigations under his administration, to be unfounded and baseless against the incumbent President. Ibrahim Mohamed Solih continued on his predecessor’s legacy of dog whistling and attacking state institutions and delegitimizing them and staying mum while his followers engaged in harassment. Fearmongering, scapegoating, and harassment became the core of his campaign. In one instance, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s right hand man, current Economic Minister Fayyaz Ismail’s Sister-in-law tweeted praying to god that the incumbent President would contract HIV.

This is the problem with democracy, when demagogues rile up the masses through misinformation and baseless lies and encourage their followers to engage in harassment and hate crime, the other parties have no choice but to refrain from responding in such lest they destroy the fragile democratic system here. This is how they tilt the playing field in their favor during the election.

President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih next move was to usurp absolute control over the government. By locking up the opposition leader, withholding their finances and obstructing their campaign, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih ensured that his party would win a historic 65 seat majority within the parliament. This is how demagogues evolve into elected autocrats who ultimately destroy the very foundations of the institutions which brought them into power.

Since his election President Solih has systematically destroyed every institution to consolidate all the powers. The Judicial Service Commission is now led by the President of the ruling party former President Mohamed Nasheed, his attorney MP Hisaan Hussein and her former business partner Attorney General Ibrahim Riffath and their close friend Masthoor Husnee. The Supreme Court packed to gain control over it and then later, impeached or forced the resignation of sitting justices. Their replacements included prominent street level activists, to reform the judiciary and enhance democracy.

This is a recurring theme amongst elected autocrats who subvert democracy. As with the case of President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, their attack on democracy is always done in the name of reform and enhancing democracy. And it is done slow enough that it would not outrage the people. This is how President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih dismantled the Anti-Corruption Commission.

Since its inception in 1996, the Anti-Corruption Commission is the state institution mandated with investigating acts of corruption within and concerning the government. For an elected autocrat, such institutions represent an obstacle as such a regime could only be sustained by silencing the opposition through threats and hurdles while those concerned within his own party through bribes and favors. And the Anti-Corruption Commission was systematically depowered by forcing the resignation of its members, one by one.

The only democratic institution which remained and which could pose a threat to President Solih’s regime was the Elections Commission of Maldives. However, by injecting ruling party loyalists, he has ensured that the commission would protect his interests. The Elections Commission currently led by former ruling party National Congress member Fuad Thaufeek lacks credibility and has an enormous task of reformation before it can be once again deemed as a democratic institution.

Harvard Political science professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt wrote “More Often the assault on democracy begins slowly. For many citizens, it may, at first be imperceptible. After all, elections continue to be held. Opposition politicians still sit in congress. Independent newspapers still circulate. The erosion of democracy takes place piecemeal, often in baby steps. Each individual step seems minor    none appears to truly threaten democracy. Indeed, government moves to subvert democracy frequently enjoy a veneer of legality: They are approved by parliament or ruled constitutional by the supreme court. Many of them are adopted under the guise of pursing some legitimate    even laudable    public objective, such as combating corruption, “cleaning up” elections, improving the quality of democracy or enhancing national security”. This is relevant to us now more than ever. This is how President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih subverted democracy in Maldives and how the system enabled his rise and abuse of constitutional powers.

The Maldives, in the infancy of its journey for democracy simply lacked vital features within its political system and the people to prevent elected autocrats such as President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih from contesting to usurping all the constitutional powers.

The political field in the Maldives lacks norms and unwritten rules by which all would adhere. Politicians from both ends of the spectrum must value the importance maintaining democracy. Without this, one man’s subversion of democracy would mean that the next would do more and in turn lead to a breakdown in the system and society as a whole. Maldivian politicians need to understand that without this system, without such norms which all adhere to, the system and the nation will fall.

Politicians as well as the grassroots of both parties needs to understand that the life they enjoy is enabled by the system and the system would be systematically disassembled and discarded if demagogues and authoritarians are allowed on to the podiums. Politicians must take a universal stand against such elements from both outside and within their parties.

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Disclaimer: The Problem with Solih & Democracy – Demagogues and Authoritarianism in Maldives. By Hamdhan Shakeel - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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