Maldives: Adopting The China Model? – Analysis


By N Sathiya Moorthy*

Brushing aside the domestic political opposition and international pressure, Maldives President Abdulla Yameen seems to have put development ahead of democracy in the long run-up to his bid for re-election in 2018. In doing so, he seems to be replicating what could be dubbed as the ‘China model’ of domestic political administration since the days after Deng Xiaoping.

No one is talking any more about the Yameen’s re-election campaign, launched by First Lady Fathimath Ibrahim and his camp followers, a few months ago. Half-brother and former President Maumoon Gayoom, founder and head of Yameen’s ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) also stayed away. The PPM-led coalition controls the 85-member Parliament, and there is an unproved belief that the Yameen camp has a majority within the PPM and the alliance.

Instead, the Yameen leadership is going ahead with what seems to be a well-calibrated and well-oiled forward movement on the economic and development fronts. Fancying himself as a trade, commerce and economy man, Yameen’s current efforts, if they succeed, could shift the national focus and agenda from democracy back to development – as what the case was under the 30 long years of Gayoom’s rule.

Yameen has time till October-November 2018 elections for the same. The success or failure of the same, over the medium and long terms, would depend on his election victory/defeat at the time. The question remains if the incumbent Government or the ‘pro-democracy’ competitor in the Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) of jailed former President Mohammed Nasheed could not (have had) both.

In its short-lived term, the Nasheed presidency focussed near-exclusively on democratisation (of the MDP kind). Under the circumstances of the time, it could not have been otherwise. But excessive economic reforms, based on the IMF model of market capitalism, meant that jobs were lost, salaries were cut and tariffs shot up. If the Nasheed presidency had medium and long-term plans to facilitate meaningful and self-sustaining growth, they were launched a little too early. Moreover, they were not retained long enough to make things work.

Against this development, the use democracy by the Yameen camp can potentially be seen as an attempt at silencing political competition, using that very democratic syntax which the MDP rival had sworn by. Independent of what the MDP and the international community might say, there is political justification and judicial approval (until the Supreme Court, if at all, orders otherwise), both on the domestic front, for Nasheed’s 13-year jail-term.

An ardent believer of market capitalism himself, Yameen has been more imaginative in choosing his economic tools than Nasheed. Nasheed chose fiscal measures for visible reforms even while toying with the idea of opening up in a big way. That made the government relatively unpopular, particularly among the youth. They latter had stood by democratisation and Nasheed wholesale, hoping that the change would usher in personal prosperity.

Creating jobs

Either learning from Nasheed’s folly on the economic front or otherwise, the Yameen presidency has reversed the priorities between fiscal and investment reforms. It is unclear if the leadership has any specific reforms agenda for the fiscal front. But on opening-up, the Government has been working purposefully on facilitating faster overseas investment, with the hope and promise of creating more jobs and increasing family incomes even while improving the revenues for the exchequer.

Recently, a minister in the Yameen Government claimed that they have created 60,000 new jobs since coming to office in November 2013. That means every fifth or sixth person in Maldives (including children and the old) have got a job. It’s a tall order, but even a fraction of the claim, if true, could make the difference underMaldivian conditions. More importantly, such a course could inject a cascading effect on the economy on the one hand and on the public mood on the other.

Yameen has gone on-record to say that the nation cannot any longer rely near-exclusively on resort tourism as its economic mainstay. The sector has taken many a hit over the past decade – both natural (tsunami) and man-made (global economic melt-down). For long the sword of democracy has been hanging over the nation’s head, with threats, fears and anticipation of the high-spending western tourists staying away, either because of moral convictions, or government advisories, or both.

Imaginative bridge

The Yameen leadership began with an SEZ programme. It is yet to take off in a big way. Its success could mean the success of Yameen leadership at a personal-level, and politics at the policy-level. The failure of the SEZ scheme, particularly in terms of creating jobs and for the locals, could also hit Yameen personally, in political and electoral terms. He may not be unaware of it, either.

Simultaneously, Yameen is also looking at imaginative development schemes that could serve a public purpose. The China-funded Male-Hulhulumale sea-bridge, connecting the nation’s capital to the fast-developing island-suburb or ‘satellite city’, could ease the pressure on land and costs even more than already. At present, the two islands are connected through boats, still the most popular mode of transport in the Indian Ocean archipelago. The prestigious project, with which Maldivians in every corner of the country could proudly identify with, is set to be completed by 2017, a year ahead of the next presidential polls.

Yameen’s development policies are also aimed at capturing the youth, more. As if to confer greater responsibility and respectability on local youth – and valuing their national pride and personal integrity, so to say – the Government has barred foreign nationals from being appointed as treasurers in Maldivian establishments. More recently, the Government has announced a scheme, to be implemented in 2016, for pregnant women to work out of their homes. Whether the scheme would cover only government jobs or also include private enterprises is unclear just now.

Replicating Rajapaksa

In the neighbourhood context, it would look as if Yameen is replicating, or has borrowed from the politico-electoral model of former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. There is no LTTE in Maldives for Yameen to vanquish, and become a ‘national hero’. At the same time, there is also no parallel to the decisive Tamil-Muslim vote-banks in Maldives, which alone did Rajapaksa in, at this January’s presidential polls that he had advanced. Majority Sinhala community voted substantially in favour of Rajapaksa, who polled 47 per cent votes.

Despite claims to the contrary, democracy was not an election issue per se, in Sri Lanka. It had its effect only as a political process, facilitating and guaranteeing periodic elections. In Maldives, it was an issue as the final results of the 2008 presidential polls proved. It was an anti-Gayoom election. Despite all the heat and dust it created in 2013, the 2013 presidential poll was an issue-less election, where the MDP could not make it as much Yameen-centric as it could make it Nasheed-centric.

In politico-electoral context, even in the best of times, as in the first round of the 2013 presidential polls, Nasheed as the single most popular candidate could muster only 47 per cent vote-share, or less than the required 50 per cent. Whether desired or designed that way, Yameen’s politico-administrative strategy, to become successful has to take the presidential poll process away from being Nasheed-centric, as has been since 2008. Whether he could succeed in it, where Gayoom had failed in his time is a different question.

An emerging alternative?

In Sri Lanka, President Rajapaksa had started off on his development agenda even when the decisive ‘Eelam War IV’ was on. Post-war, he even hoped that it would work with the Tamils, as well. It did not happen that way. In Maldives, President Yameen too is facing international pressure over ‘democracy’ and human rights, personified once again in Nasheed. Nearer home he lays greater stress on development and job-creation.

Though there is nothing to suggest a common script, the development-democracy political paradigm in Sri Lanka first, and Maldives now, there are elements that are even more common to China. It goes beyond China’s funding of development projects in these two countries under friendlier regimes. There are other nations falling under a similar pattern, across the world – most of them in the ‘Third World’ category, as well.

On the one hand, China alone has surplus cash to invest. It does not deflect from a nation’s developmental discourse to introduce democratic elements – or, so goes the argument. It also goes without saying that regimes like those of Rajapaksa and Yameen could also count only on China for funding and ultimate political backing in UN Security Council (with its veto power).

Having adapted market capitalism to boost its economic domination the world over, China has also adapted western democracy to suit its own conditions. Unacknowledged by the world, China has evolved a scheme that grants post-Deng national leaders only two terms in office. The nation may have borrowed from the American adversary’s constitutionally-mandated two-term upper-limit.

It may have also learnt it hard from Third World democracies and the rest, where familiarity in this era of uncontrollable social media has bred anti-incumbency. In Sri Lanka, Rajapaksa removed the two-term upper-limit in vogue since the Seventies and lost. Maldives, too, has a two-term upper-limit for the presidency, and this is Yameen’s first term.

Going beyond these two Indian Ocean neighbours, which are also close to India, the world’s largest democracy, China’s development versus democracy model may have application elsewhere too, in the coming years and decades.

It is also a take-off from the Soviet model which failed itself and elsewhere, too, but China seems to have re-tuned it to the contemporary era of uncontrollable social media activism, post-Tianamen. To the extent, nations like Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka and Yameen’s Maldives are experiments in an experience, like the Jayawardene Sri Lanka and Gayoom’s Maldives were in their time.

*N Sathiya Moorthy is the Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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