Former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed can be described in many ways: Amnesty International’s Prisoner of Conscience, who went on to win the first multiparty presidential election in the country in 2008; a rather naive politician who was unseated by powerful oligarchs in 2012 because he was still in activist mode; a rallying point for the united opposition, which is now fighting for the restoration of democracy in the Maldives; a fugitive from law who, as a prisoner, was allowed to go abroad for treatment and did not return; a climate warrior who caught the imagination of the world by having his first Cabinet meeting underwater; a relentless fighter who has kept the international focus on the Maldives by his efforts across the world. In Bengaluru for The Huddle conclave organised by The Hindu , Nasheed found time to look at the Maldives’ early struggle with democracy in this interview. Excerpts:
Some of us who have followed the Maldives closely believe that the troubles in the country, ironically, began soon after the establishment of a multiparty democratic system because the powerful oligarchs still carried a lot of clout within the system and that the democratic experiment was designed to fail even before it took off. Your views.
It was an extremely challenging phase [from 2008]. There was a view that suppression of ideas that you do not like helps you [when in power]. And there’s a view that that is stability. But we find that there is a historical inevitability to this. Democracy finally comes out. Finally the regime falls. And when an autocratic regime falls, that brings a lot of destruction into countries. So my view has been that the more you strengthen democracy, the more stable the country becomes.
Now, when we mandated freedom of expression, that space was used by not just the democrats—it was not only for good use. Because freedom of expression was allowed for everyone, we also found out how strong the radicals were. They were no longer underground. If they were underground, it would have been far worse.
The Maldives is a small nation with just about 3.5 lakh people. How easy or difficult is it to change perceptions among people? Or make them understand the basic concepts of unfettered freedom of expression? Did you even attempt that?
We did attempt that. We did a number of things such as encouraging citizens to speak out, allowing civil society to grow. We did allow political parties to function, and it was not easy because there was a group of people, especially some institutions, which did not want to see that happen. They wanted to reverse it, wanted to bring it back to where it was before, especially entrenched institutions [such as] the judiciary, and so on. They did not like what was going on. So it was difficult to completely change everyone.
And we were not in the business of arresting the whole regime that went before us. This is what happens in many countries and what we have seen happening now in the Maldives too: any government that comes in arrests everyone who was there earlier. We were trying to educate the people through the media.
I think it has worked. We have not slipped back to where we were in the 1970s. Political parties are still there and they are able to function. I am able to give messages to people back home. People are able to organise themselves on peaceful political activity and some form of media is still surviving.
Making a transition on paper, such as the establishment of a multiparty democracy, is easier than making it in your own mind, such as being open to criticism. Are people in positions of power, MPs, Ministers, higher officials, fine with criticism of their style of functioning? Can they deal with the fact that there are people speaking against them?
Can they digest it? Well, more and more we are learning it. Initially, you wouldn’t want to entertain these criticisms. It is a learning curve. Ministers and MPs are learning it. Everyone is learning it. It is certainly getting better and better every day. Yes, our Ministers [in 2008] were better than the previous lot [Abdul Gayoom’s Ministers] because we came into government talking about it. So we had to deliver it in government.
Looking back, was it the deal with an Indian company on the Ibrahim Nasir airport that became the rallying point against your government or was it one of the many things that the oligarchs slapped on you?
You know, we only gave the airport for 25 years, and it was for management and development. President Yameen has literally given the whole thing away. What can we infer from the fact that this move has not made people antagonistic towards him? We gave the airport through a tender process overseen by the World Bank. I don’t think that was the issue at all. When you want to capture the imagination of the people, or come out with some rhetoric, you can pick on things. I think that is what happened with the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport.
In the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit of 2011, following local protests an image gifted by Pakistan had to be removed after it was displayed. Was it also part of the campaign against your government?
Once if you want to build a proper narrative or rhetoric, you can use all kinds of things. I have always been portrayed as un-Islamic and anti-Islamic. They have been talking about this for a long time. But I don’t see people buying it. I think a very small minority of people buy it. The fact that we were able to get 48 per cent of the votes ourselves is a clear explanation. President Yameen and none of these people got anything more than 26 per cent. When you finally went to the people and asked them, it was obvious whom they wanted.
In hindsight, would a first-past-the-post system of election, rather than one in which a President has to get 50 per cent of the polled votes, suit the Maldives?
It would have been. In two instances, we have got [the votes]. In the first instance, we got 27 per cent of the votes and I formed the government [in the first round, in 2008]. The second time around, President Yameen got 26 per cent of the votes and he formed the government [in 2013]. So we seem to be looking at the most unpopular person to form the government! So this system is not working.
Are you worried about the fragmentation of polity in the Maldives? Your Maldivian Democratic Party and the Progressive Party of Maldives are big parties. But there are very many smaller parties on whom these big two have to rely on to form the government. With this, the agenda of the major party gets diluted. I think this was one of the reasons that you wanted to go it alone in the last election.
Yeah. It does get diluted, especially in economic issues. But in other areas, such as foreign policy, we see eye to eye; we are on the same page. But in taxation, others might have a different view. On social protection, others might have a different view. There will be differences, and we will have to make a lot of compromises.
From the time you have been President until now, the regional dynamic has changed a great deal. China is a reality in the Indian Ocean. We have seen in the case of the regime change in Sri Lanka that the status quo with regard to China continues, though the politicians who were voted to power did promise to relook into all Chinese projects. You have been speaking about the Chinese land grab in the Maldives.
I am not against China. I am only saying that we need an international convention on foreign direct investments. So let’s not get countries to prop up dictatorships so that they get contracts. I think we can talk to China on that. I think China will understand that we are worried about these kinds of issues.
Yes, countries have not been able to have a grip of the situation even after changes in government. So we, of course, need an international instrument to solve these issues.
You made certain demands of India. As we have seen after the Sri Lanka debacle with the Indian Peace Keeping Force, India does not intervene in another country; it tries to works with the system. Hence, change will be only gradual. Will this be acceptable to people like you who want India to intervene?
Right now, the manner in which President Yameen is going about arresting and intimidating everyone is worrying people. India must step in. Asking us to sort it out ourselves is asking us to go in for a fist fight. If you tell me that this is an internal issue and we should solve it ourselves, and if President Yameen is not willing to sit down with us, the only other manner we can do it internally would be to be as strong as he is. That is a very dangerous line. People keep on saying it is an internal matter of the Maldives. That is telling me and the opposition in the Maldives to be as strong as President Yameen.
So what can happen with all the international pressure? We have seen U.S. President Donald Trump speak to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Statements alone will not do it. You have to be a little bit more forceful. Punitive measures such as sanctions and visa bans will help. That is again a long process. Someone going there and sorting it out is important.
So do you see the presidential election being held on schedule this year?
I do see the election being held.
What gives you this confidence?
I have been speaking to people in the military and the police. A lot of them are of my generation. They are not happy with what they have been forced to do. I think there will be a snapping point.