Election Victories: The Power of People, the Strength of Nonviolent Action

Vanessa Ortiz

Director, Civic and Field Relations, International Center on Nonviolent Conflict

(Welcome letter: Issue #60 – Nov./Dec. 2008)  

(With admiration and gratitude for contributions from Shahindha Ismail, Coordinator of Maldivian Detainee Network, Male, the Maldives)

ThailandMaldives“We did it!  I received this simple email message on October 30th, one day after presidential elections – not the widely-covered United States presidential election, but the barely-reported landmark election held in an authoritarian state – the Maldives. The 30-year dictatorship that choked the Maldives was finally over, and it was the citizens of this vast ocean nation that won. It was their long nonviolent struggle that led to democratic change – the people demanded it.

The images of this tourist paradise looked very different on October 30th than the typical resort allure that the Maldive Islands are famous for. Images from that day inspired the world in another way. Maldivians took to the streets to vote, just as they had five years before when mass protests against tyranny and for free and fair elections sent a powerful message to long-time ruler Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

In the first dramatic show of civil resistance in August of 2001, pro-democracy protests brought thousands of Maldivians to the streets in what came to be known as “Black Friday.” Protesters were attacked by police, over 200 citizens were arrested, and the president declared a state of emergency. Now-elected President Nasheed was also one of those arrested and jailed many times in the past decade for his role in organizing and leading protests and other nonviolent campaigns.

Fast forward to the Fall of 2008 — campaign flags, banners, and wall art dominated the streets of Male, the Maldivian capital. Many simply read, “Enough.”

The Power of Nonviolent Action

South African cleric, activist, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu once said, “When people decide they want to be free…….there is nothing that will stop them.” *  It is this collective desire for freedom with which the people of the Maldives, like tens of thousands of people before them, challenged and resisted the 30-year political status quo under former President Gayoom.  Similar transitions have occurred before in many other parts of the world, including India, South Africa, the Philippines, East Timor, Poland, Chile, Serbia, Ukraine, Lebanon and Georgia. 

Nonviolent conflict entails the use of civilian-based strategies to obtain human rights, establish justice or achieve democracy through strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience and other nonviolent tactics which disrupt and dissolve oppressive rule. It manifests in many ways – through strikes, sit-ins, boycotts, protests and other dramatic actions, clandestine organizing using digital technology, street theater, humor, music and cultural acts that undermines the authority while at the same time builds collective skills and expands citizen representation. But what is it that propels a nonviolent movement?

Ingredients: Unity, Planning, Nonviolent Discipline

One fundamental ingredient for the success of a nonviolent struggle is unity. Unity requires consensus, and that consensus can only be reached through broad participation and representation. Shahindha Ishamail (or Hindha), a friend and activist in the Maldives, volunteered for Unite for Change campaign as it pressed forward to mobilize youth and push toward elections. “The gathering place for the youth campaign was donated by one of the opposition political parties.” Hindha and other activists worked tirelessly to unify people and opposition parties. The goal was to get everyone involved. She points out, “Our campaign headquarters was open at all times for anyone to come and help around or contribute their ideas. Activities such as t-shirt printing and banner making were constantly ongoing, and anyone could come and join.”  

Another key ingredient is planning. In the Maldives, many local organizations and activists came together to plan strategically. Overt political gatherings were not allowed and often invited government and police harassment. Planning meetings were planned by pockets of civil society leaders and held in safe spaces. Hindha acknowledges that a great deal of time went into planning. “At the end of each day, all of the active members had a meeting to analyze the effectiveness of the activities carried out on that day,” she reflects. “We also brainstormed constantly for new ideas and took votes on how to proceed.”

The third key ingredient to success is nonviolent discipline. A nonviolent movement can enlist participation from most citizens – young and old, men and women, rich and poor. The Maldivian struggle was committed to nonviolent principles from the very beginning. “Every rally began with instructions and advice on how to use nonviolent tactics,” Hindha remembers.  “Our main message was nonviolent change.” Violence invites repression, and in a contest of arms, Maldivian activists knew they could not win. The use of violence could not lead to the broad-based coalition that they developed, it would terrorize citizens, and violence would not win the international support of potential allies and economic interests that the dictator often courted. Remaining nonviolent was a strategic choice.

Add Creativity and Confidence

coffinmaldivesOne additional characteristic of nonviolent action is creativity. Nonviolent action forces one to think beyond spontaneous reactions. Creativity involves planning ahead, being innovative and strategic in searching for actions that surprise the opponent while seducing and engaging the public. Activists in the Maldives often played live music, mostly popular songs, but they also created political songs. Hindha notes, “One of the best was called the STO song. It talks about the Auditor General’s report and the corruption in the State Trading Organisation (STO).” Maldivian activists posted the song and other audio and video recordings of their activities on YouTube for wider distribution among youth. 

Finally, all the core ingredients, topped with creativity, inspireconfidence. Confidence develops through continuous small-scale successes, or mini victories: a growing network of supporters and mass participation; a plan that everyone has contributed to; the commitment to remain nonviolent; creative design and use of diverse tactics that are arranged in clever, surprising sequences. When all these elements are in play, fear decreases, enthusiasm increases, and mass confidence is built.

Unite for Change — Yes We Can!

On the night of November 4th, just as on October 30th, I began receiving remote messages from friends in the U.S. and around the world: “Truly Amazing,” “Si se puede!” So exciting.” “A victory for the world.” In both countries, only days apart, the streets were jubilant as citizens amassed to cel
ebrate their election victories. “Unite for Change!” shouted hundreds of young Maldivians covering the streets of Male – “Yes We Can” cried nearly a quarter million Americans gathered at Grant Park in Chicago.

Each country’s history is its own, each country’s culture and traditions are unique. What is common is the universal desire for rights … to participate in civic life, to work toward social and economic rights, and to enjoy freedom. The Maldives ability to mobilize all citizens — youth, local organizations, political opposition parties, lawyers, business people, and government civil servants – and to face great risks while resisting oppression offers less in common with the U.S. and more in common with other countries that have successfully shed autocratic rule. “We saw that as our movement grew, the dictator shrunk,” notes Hindha, “When you have the people with you, you create your path to freedom.”

The Maldives historic nonviolent struggle has changed their future, and we should all celebrate with them.

*Desmond Tutu, videotaped by Steve York for the documentary television series A Force More Powerful, Atlanta, Georgia, August 27, 1999.