In a world grappling with the challenges of democratic backsliding, the Maldives emerges as a beacon of hope, showcasing a remarkable reversal from autocratic tendencies to a vibrant democracy under the tenure of former President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. The Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Democracy Report 2024 underscores this significant achievement, placing the island nation among a select group of countries experiencing “U-turn” democratisation.

A Standout Success

The Maldives’ journey from autocratisation to democratisation is particularly noteworthy, given the prevailing global trends. After years of political upheaval, the 2018 presidential elections marked a turning point for the nation. The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP)’s victory, followed by significant wins in the parliamentary elections, signified a crucial shift towards democratic governance.

The recent 2023 presidential elections further cemented this progress, highlighting the substantial responsibility that needs to be filled by new President Dr Mohamed Muizzu to maintain his predecessor’s excellent record.

This transition stands in stark contrast to the global narrative of democratic erosion. The V-Dem report highlights the Maldives as one of the few countries that not only halted its slide into autocracy but also managed to enhance its democratic institutions beyond previous levels.

A Comparative Perspective

When juxtaposed with other nations, the achievements under President Solih’s tenure gain even greater significance. The report documents a concerning wave of autocratisation affecting 42 countries, home to 2.8 billion people. Against this backdrop, the Maldives’ successful democratisation, especially amidst regional challenges in South and Central Asia, is all the more commendable.

Countries such as India, with its vast population, significantly influence regional democratic trends. Yet, the Maldives’ example proves that positive change is achievable, highlighting the impact of committed democratisation efforts, irrespective of a country’s size or geopolitical influence.

Global Democratic Trends: A Mixed Picture

The V-Dem report paints a nuanced picture of the global state of democracy, indicating a regression to levels of democratic governance last seen in 1985. This trend is especially pronounced in Eastern Europe and South and Central Asia. Despite these challenges, there are signs of democratisation in 18 countries, though the wave of autocratisation remains a dominant global pattern.

Freedom of expression, clean elections, and freedom of association emerge as core democratic institutions under threat. The report identifies deteriorations in these areas across numerous countries, underscoring the need for vigilant protection of democratic values.

Solih’s Remarkable Feat in Reversing Autocracy

The Maldives’ story is a testament to the resilience of democracy and the possibility of reversing autocratic trends. While the global landscape of democracy faces significant challenges, the achievements of the Maldives offer a glimmer of hope and a blueprint for democratic revitalisation.

President Solih’s tenure, spanning from 2018 to 2023, marked a significant period in the country’s democratic journey. One of Solih’s notable achievements toward democratisation was leading the Maldives back into the Commonwealth of Nations in 2020, a move that symbolised the nation’s renewed commitment to democratic governance and international cooperation after a hiatus that began in 2016.

This decision was celebrated as a step towards strengthening the Maldives’ democratic institutions and international relationships, especially after the autocratic tendencies observed during the tenure of his predecessor, Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom.

The 2019 parliamentary elections under Solih’s leadership saw the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) achieving a landslide victory, securing a supermajority in the parliament for the first time in Maldivian history. This electoral success was interpreted as a mandate for the MDP’s democratic reform agenda and provided a stable platform for Solih’s government to implement its policies.

Big Shoes to Fill: Continuing the Democratic Journey

As the Maldives welcomes its new leadership under President Dr Mohamed Muizzu, the path ahead is marked by both opportunity and challenge. The V-Dem Democracy Report 2024 has illuminated the Maldives’ significant progress in reversing autocratic trends and fostering democratisation, showcasing a period of substantial political transformation.

To maintain and further these achievements, the new administration faces the crucial task of upholding the momentum of democratic reform and addressing the areas of concern identified in the report.

Building upon the solid groundwork laid by the Solih administration, the new president is tasked with navigating the Maldives through the complexities of democratic consolidation. This includes ensuring the continued protection of freedom of expression, the integrity of clean elections, and the rights to free association – areas that have seen global deterioration but are pivotal to the Maldives’ democratic resilience.

While Muizzu has already been under scrutiny for his backsliding foreign policy and curbs on freedom of expression and media, the administration also faces the challenge of democratically responding to the internal political dynamics and ideological disputes that have previously challenged the country’s democratic institutions.

The journey ahead for the Maldives, as showcased by the V-Dem findings, requires a committed effort to strengthen democratic governance, foster political stability, and ensure that the voices of all Maldivians are heard and valued.

In doing so, the new president has the opportunity to build on the legacy of democratic achievements by Solih and steer the Maldives towards a future where democracy is not only preserved but flourishes.

The success of this endeavour will depend on a concerted, cross-party effort to uphold the constitution, honour democratic principles, and secure the Maldives’ position as a beacon of democracy in the region.