This is what organizing is. You talk to people and try to get them engaged. You tell them about what people are doing elsewhere, so they can glimpse what they could do. It is – wait for it – a kind of pollination.
— Bill McKibben, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist (New York: Times Books, 2013), 117
The fight going on in the Maldives – a place most people couldn’t pinpoint within a thousand miles on a world map – may seem to be in a far-off place, a world away. But it’s not. What is taking place in the Maldives is a fight for the future, for everyone’s future, a fight waged within a battle that we are all living through. It’s a fight for democracy, in the first instance, an old fight like hundreds of others where a population stands up against lies, bullying, greed, power, and history. It’s also a fight for human rights as outlined in that too little known claim of the U.N.’s magnificent universal declaration of 1948, where “food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control” are counted as equal to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. And lastly, and perhaps most important, it’s a quiet fight on a vast front that concerns us all: humanity’s daunting, dogged struggle to face up to the ultimate existential threat of climate change, inexorably dragging us toward a cliff at the bottom of which lies a hell where all our descendants will live – real people, some now young, others yet to be born.
Fighting for Democracy: The Yellow Flags of Freedom
In the first instance, this is a fight for democracy. The bare outlines of our story start with the 30-year dictatorship of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who monopolized political power in the Maldives from 1978 to 2008. If Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa once called the ruling party in Mexico the “perfect dictatorship” for the ways it found to win every election for over seventy years, we might well call the long night of Gayoom the “perfect presidency.” Simultaneously styling himself president, head of the judiciary, and highest religious authority in the country, he “won” six elections in a row for the Maldivian People’s Party without an opposition candidate! As The Economist colorfully puts it, he was “an autocratic moderniser who made the Maldives the wealthiest corner of South Asia by promoting high-end bikini-and-booze tourism (usually on atolls some distance away from the solidly Muslim local population). He also crushed dissent, let capricious and poorly educated judges make a mockery of the law, and allowed social problems to fester…”
One person whose dissent Gayoom could not crush was the young journalist Mohamed Nasheed. Imprisoned multiple times, tortured, held in solitary confinement, Nasheed left the Maldives to co-found the Maldivian Democratic Party, the MDP, in 2003. In 2008, when the country’s first ever free elections were held, Nasheed won on the second round after polling just 25 percent of the vote in the first round to Gayoom’s 40 percent, because he united the opposition parties in the final round to take 54 percent of the vote. Yet the price Nasheed paid for making conservative politician Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik his running mate, because on February 6-8, 2012 Nasheed was the object of a well orchestrated plot by his political enemies that led to his deposition and Waheed’s eager ascension to the presidency in a coup that the British Commonwealth and other members of the international community shamefully legitimated and let stand.
Now Nasheed seeks to return to power with a new mandate arising from the Maldivian people, who are struggling to make their votes count. Despite overwhelming endorsement as clean and fair by every international observer, a narrow majority of the country’s Supreme Court ruled that the September 7 first-round presidential elections were null and void on a flimsy complaint from the disgruntled third place finisher, a decision that proves that reality can sometimes be stranger than fiction. One of the justices who annulled the election has been caught in bed with three sex workers on YouTube but remains in place in a country where 99 percent of the population is Muslim, and Nasheed’s main opposition slanders the candidate for being irreligious. Another of the judges is the very man whom Nasheed ordered arrested just before the coup because he had many times refused to prosecute the criminal acts of the high and powerful under the dictatorship. The Court’s decision was based on a still secret report by the same police who ousted Nasheed in the coup; neither the MDP or the Electoral Commission was allowed to set foot in the courtroom for final arguments in the case.
The electoral math of an outright victory on October 19 requires Nasheed to take roughly ten percent of the votes that went to the other three candidates combined in the first round on September 7. That is, to his 95,224 first-round voters he must add about 10,000 of the votes shared among his three opponents: the Progressive Party of the Maldives candidate Abdulla Yameen’s 53,099, the Justice Party’s Gasim Ibrahim’s 50,422, and the current President Waheed’s 10,750. This assumes that the three candidates unite to field only a single candidate whom they all endorse. Waheed has dropped out of the race without advising his few voters to vote for either Qasim or Yameen, wishing to sound the statesman who wants only to guide the country through these difficult times. On October 15, the would-be statesman asserted there was “‘room for doubt’ over the integrity and fairness of this year’s polls,” words that drip with irony from the man who made himself president in a coup.
Meanwhile the lust for the presidency has gripped both of the major reactionary candidates, to their mutual detriment. Qasim, having gotten his way through the bankrupt morals of his friends on the high court, feels those 10,000 votes are his, and will bring him the second place finish he couldn’t obtain legitimately on the first first round. It doesn’t matter to him how he wins, nor does he think his crimes will tarnish his presidency. Of his rival Yameen, he claims, “I would rather walk into the sea with my wives and children than join Yameen.” Yameen hates Nasheed and everything the MDP stands for, but his love of country is not great enough to countenance a deal with the billionaire who robbed him of his place in the run-off the first time around. Look for Yameen to cry foul if he places third this time around! Interestingly, Waheed’s vice-presidential running mate, Ahmed Thasmeen Ali, leader of the now disbanded Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) on whose ticket he ran for vice president in 2008 with Gayoom, unexpectedly has advised former party members to vote for Nasheed’s MDP ticket.
There is clearly great sympathy for Nasheed. One can see it in the yellow-bedecked streets of Male, the capital city. The outrageous tactics of his opponents over the last year and a half have generated a groundswell of good feeling for Nasheed’s principled and open campaign which has brought him to every inhabited place in the Maldives to meet the people, and led him to personally sign a letter addressed to every one of the country’s registered voters. The campaign has been a model of grassroots organizing, literally a “Door to Door” campaign with a thousand volunteers committed to visiting every family in the country, generating a massive amount of genuine passion and enthusiasm on the ground. The MDP reports that it has received pledges of votes from 125,000 of the 240,000 eligible voters in its door to door canvas, while registering thousands of new voters: the median age in the Maldives is 26 and the MDP’s campaign is by far the most media-savvy. “Statistics and the smiles of the people” portend victory, Nasheed says.
It’s also a fight for a better life for the 330,000 people of the Maldives. While in power, the Nasheed administration delivered free healthcare, a national university (Nasheed’s running mate, Dr. Musthafa Luthfy, was appointed as the first Chancellor of the Maldives National University), pensions for the elderly, social housing, improved transportation among the islands, and civil liberties such as freedom of expression and security of one’s person unheard of in the Maldivian context. In the current MDP campaign manifesto entitled “The Other Maldives,” a document that provides a detailed development plan in 525 pages, there is an explicit “social justice” provision:
With targeted interventions, the government expects to open up opportunities for the most disadvantaged sections of the society to emerge from their present conditions of poverty thereby helping the country achieve its development goals.
The government has embarked on a policy of transforming the current fragmented social safety net programs into a comprehensive social protection system, ensuring fiscal sustainability and effectiveness of social assistance to those most vulnerable, to enable them to live a life of dignity (23).
The MDP has pledged to raise $4.6 billion in tax revenues over the next five years. Over forty percent of these revenues are earmarked for some 137 development projects, to generate 51,000 jobs, build 20,000 housing units, provide aid to single parents and persons with disabilities, and make loans available to students.
A Fight for All of Us: The Island President and the Climate Justice Minister
In October 2009, Nasheed grabbed the world’s attention by holding a cabinet meeting underwater, with ministers in scuba gear sitting at a table signing documents calling on all countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions: “We must unite in a world war effort to halt further temperature rises. Climate change is happening and it threatens the rights and security of everyone on Earth. We have to have a better deal. We should be able to come out with an amicable understanding that everyone survives. If Maldives can’t be saved today, we do not feel that there is much of a chance for the rest of the world”. At the historic 2009 UN climate summit in Copenhagen, he declared Maldives’ goal of becoming the world’s first carbon-neutral country:
For us swearing off fossil fuels is not only the right thing to do, it is in our economic self-interest…. Pioneering countries will free themselves from the unpredictable price of foreign oil; they will capitalize on the new green economy of the future, and they will enhance their moral standing giving them greater political influence on the world stage.
One of us (John) well remembers being in the audience that November at the alternative People’s Klimaforum when we heard that Nasheed was coming direct from his arrival at the airport to address us, rather than making his way to the high-level negotiations where the other presidents and prime ministers were gathering. Young climate activists greeted him on that occasion with a banner that read “You Are Our Global President.” At the talks, he and minister of environment Mohamed Aslam carried the banner of the many frontline island nations most threatened by climate change, and their principled stand and frank exchanges stand at the center of Jon Shenk’s spellbinding 2012 film, The Island President.
When the coup came in February 2012, support for the struggle against Nasheed’s forced departure was quickly voiced by the global climate justice community. British environmentalist Mark Lynas, Nasheed’s climate consultant and author of Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, wrote in The Guardian: “The deposed president is famous for his efforts to fight climate change, but his lifelong struggle has been for democracy – and now I fear for his safety.” Nasheed has survived, and so has the climate justice movement in the Maldives, which is not a one- (or two-) man affair. On 350.org’s Connect the Dots day of action on May 5, 2012, prominent writer-activist Bill McKibben’s thoughts went out to the Maldives, “where people turned out even though a military coup had sidelined the island country’s democracy just weeks before” (Oil and Honey, 121).
Climate justice is the Maldives’s long-term intergenerational struggle; it must be addressed for the nascent democracy to matter. As Nasheed states in The Island President, “We view climate change in the context of democracy. Without democracy, you cannot enact. The former dictatorship wasted $200 million because they gave the contracts to the wrong people.” The country’s chances of addressing the climate chaos that is inexorably descending upon it are immeasurably enhanced if Nasheed, and democracy, prevail in this election. Prior to the coup, Mohamed Aslam stated that the only way to address the issue of climate change is with the pressure of the people: “The people must realize that this issue needs to be resolved. It must become an election issue. People should elect leaders who have got the courage to face this issue and to deal with it.”
If Nasheed and Aslam represent the Maldives once again at COP19 UN climate summit in Warsaw this November, the balance of forces now tilted so heavily toward the fossil fuel corporations and governments, and thus to the climate catastrophe dictated by their business as usual attitude, will shift – at least to some degree – back in the direction dictated by science and championed by the 99.99 percent. October 19 may be a national election in a small country, but it could bring to power a global president with a passion for climate justice.
What Happens in the Maldives Concerns Us All
Maldives now stands at a crossroads where its future forks one way or another. Its ordeal has been a prolonged one. The elections are, in effect, a popular referendum on the legality of the coup and on vastly different visions for the future of the country. One way lies a hard but clear-eyed path toward a low-carbon sustainable development and a functioning democracy. The alternative is a descent into a darkness that would be all the greater for having spent a few years in the sunlight after 2008.
Political analyst Azra Naseem considers this moment in history as an “allout confrontation between democracy and autocracy in which the biggest weapon of the autocrats is the judicial independence that is widely accepted as a means of making democracy possible. If there ever was a textbook case of democracy being subverted by the rule of law, the unfolding events in the Maldives is it. If there is no election on 19 October, the only power that can stand up to the unchecked power of the judiciary is the source from which both judicial power and democracy stems: the power of the people.”
It’s hard to see it any other way.
As Nasheed said on October 13, “Even if we get a chance as small as that of the eye of a needle to compete in a presidential election, we are going to win it swiftly. Our opponents have admitted it. They simply cannot win over us through a vote of the people.” It is of note that the scales of justice adorn the MDP flag. And as an anonymous blogger posted recently on a Maldives news website: “If we lose this opportunity and let democracy be robbed, we lose everything.”
October 19, 2013: a fight like many others that concerns us all.
John Foran is a Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and co-director of the International Institute of Climate Action and Theory (www.iicat.org). You can see more of his work at http://www.soc.ucsb.edu/faculty/john-foran
Summer Gray is a Ph.D. student in Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a Research Associate at the International Institute of Climate Action and Theory (http://www.iicat.org).