Issues in Democratic Transition: Recent Experiences from Maldives and some Arab States |

Issues in Democratic Transition: Recent Experiences from Maldives and some Arab States

The Arab Spring brought about hopes for greater democracy, freedom and human rights in the Middle East. But the road to democracy is fraught with difficulties, said Dr Mohamed Waheed, Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) and Immediate Past President of the Maldives. Dr Waheed shared his views on the challenges of democratic transition in a talk chaired by Professor Kanti Bajpai, Vice-Dean (Research) of LKYSPP.

The maturity for modernity

Drawing from his experience as the former president of Maldives and the country’s political past, Dr Waheed said that a liberal democratic system is the aspiration of many countries in the world today. Since 1960, 123 countries have undergone “democratic transitions” – though, most fail within the first five years of governance.

Even countries with firmly established democratic systems, like the United States, are not problem-free. This shows democracy, as a political system, is often fragile and imperfect.

There are several factors that determine the success of democratic transitions. These include a country’s demography, rule of law, constitution, and political parties, among others.

In the Middle East, the road to democracy begins with an understanding of what the term actually means. “A western liberal democracy requires a population that understands western liberal values about human rights, individual freedoms, responsibilities and equality,” Dr Waheed said. Any incompatibility with Islam “is more a political struggle and a balance of power between those who seek a more moderate and democratic Islam and those who pursue an authoritarian version of it,” he explained.

Speaking on the challenges that face Muslim states, he cautioned that concerted effort must be put in to revise the constitution with regard to the social and cultural context of the country and noted the challenges coalition governments have in maintaining unity, once their short-term goals of gaining power are achieved.

Therefore, the governance of political parties must first become more democratic– “party ideology has to become clearer, so membership can follow ideas rather than political patrons. Party finances have to be more transparent and independent,” and there should be legitimate processes to resolve differences.

The accountability of state institutions

Dr Waheed called for accountability to avoid a “militant democracy”– one with the prevailing notion that “the institutes of the state function for change and progress only if there is pressure from political actors on the street.”

To achieve this, institutions of state have “responsibilities for improving their respect for the law”. They must not overstep the limits of the constitution– judiciaries cannot delay justice for the sake of political appeasement, parliament cannot threaten the impeachment of a president– and referring to instances in both the Maldives and Pakistan, presidents themselves cannot order the arbitrary arrest of citizens, Dr Waheed said.

In addition, the bureaucracy must modernize prior to political participation. With the reverse order, he added, the risk is that “the state itself becomes an asset used by politicians” for their own gain.

The financial cost of democratization

Yet another challenge to democracy is the cost of achieving it. Dr Waheed suggested “the full immersion into democracy as opposed to a more gradual transition may be unaffordable, not only to Maldives but also to many other developing countries.”

Democratic changes like increased campaigning and the number of government officials caused spending to rise. In the Maldives, this added to the cost of recovering from the 2004 Tsunami and 2008 global recession and put the fiscal budget under immense stress.

The government was forced to take unpopular measures like devaluating the currency, cutting wages and the privatizing state enterprises, causing “political fallout” and “made the transition to democracy more painful and difficult,” he said.

On 27 August 2014, Dr Mohamed Waheed, Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, gave a talk entitled “Issues Facing Democratic Transition: Recent Experiences from Maldives and some Arab States”. Formerly an elected member of parliament, Vice President and the President of the Maldives from 2012 to 2013, Dr Waheed has first-hand experience in helping Maldives transition into a multi-party democracy. He also has 15 years of experience working across UNESCO, UNICEF and the UNDP. He was Special Representative of UNICEF for Afghanistan, UNICEF Representative in Yemen, Turkmenistan and Macedonia, Acting Regional Director of UNICEF, and Associate Director of the UN Development Group in New York. Dr Waheed’s current research interest is in political transition in newly emerging economies. He holds Masters degrees in political science and education, and received his PhD from Stanford University.


The Arab Spring brought much hope and expectation of greater human rights and democracy, but within months, most of those countries had plunged into political turmoil. Societies that had maintained some level of stability and cohesion, found themselves in conflict and civil war. Their economies have suffered and their societies have disintegrated with devastating consequences for their people. At the same time, the struggle for democracy and transition also continued in several Asian countries such as Maldives, Nepal, Bhutan, Indonesia and Myanmar. The early years of democracy have been rocky, but compared to the Middle East, Asia may have more reason to be optimistic.

Dr Waheed will speak about democratic transition in Maldives: issues, challenges and solutions. After a long period of autocratic rule, multi-party elections were held in Maldives in 2008. The first five years of democracy have not been smooth, but in contrast to some of the Arab countries, Maldives has avoided bloodshed, continues to safeguard its economy and keep democracy on track.

Dr Waheed will examine the difficulties inherent in making a sudden transition and the issues related to constitutional reform, political parties and elections, independent state institutions, the media and the national economy. He argues that the speed of change, the maturity of the political elite, the level of the people’s understanding of democracy and the strength of the economy are important variables in determining the quality of transition to democracy. He examines the pitfalls along the way and reflects on how to avoid them.


Dr Mohamed Waheed, Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

Wednesday, 27 August 2014
5:15 p.m. - 6:30 p.m.

Seminar Room 3-1,
Manasseh Meyer,
Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy,
469C Bukit Timah Road,
Singapore 259772

Seats are limited and will be available on a first-come, first-served basis. Kindly register your interest in attending online.

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