09/04/2012 04:18 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2012

Trouble, Again, in Paradise

Former President of the Maldives Mohamed Nasheed once described his country "a cross between paradise and paradise." His election in 2008 after 30 years of one-man rule led many to look at the country as a potential showcase for democratization in the Muslim world. But after several years of severe political turmoil, Nasheed lost his job earlier this year and a stable democratic future for the country seems increasingly tenuous. Last week, a Commission of National Inquiry found that his removal from power was constitutional. Nasheed's supporters have now taken to the streets to try to topple the government. Whatever the outcome, it appears that it will take some significant effort at institution-building to restore the shine to the island nation.

Most people think of the Maldives as a high-end tourist destination, with white sand beaches and world-class diving. But the capital Malé, a densely crowded island on which more than one third of the country's 320,000 residents are packed into less than two square kilometers, is far from a paradise. The country has one of the highest rates of heroin addiction in the world, with some estimates suggesting that as many as 8 percent of the population are affected. The UN reports that some 35 percent of women have experienced physical or sexual violence. Salafist Islam is on the rise. The budget deficit is unsustainable and the country may soon run out of money. Add to all this a young population and a stalled political reform, and you have a volatile mix.

For over 30 years, the country was ruled by an authoritarian president, Maumoon Gayoom. But in 2003, public riots followed the torture and death of a young man in prison. This triggered both international pressure and the organization of an internal political opposition. Soon thereafter, the 2004 Tsunami flooded the country, and reconstruction aid was tied to political reform. Gayoom adjusted as best he could but a political reform movement arose around a young and charismatic journalist named Mohamed Nasheed.

Nasheed won the first competitive presidential election in 2008 and almost immediately took up the issue of climate change, for which he traveled all over the world. As captured in a recent documentary The Island President, he even held a cabinet meeting underwater to illustrate the point that the country was threatened by rising sea levels. But while raising the country's profile abroad, he was beset by challenges at home, finding himself in a series of escalating confrontations with the opposition-controlled legislature.

In February of this year, following weeks of nightly demonstrations following his arrest of a judge, Nasheed resigned after appearing to lose the confidence of the police force. The next day he announced that he had been forced from office in a coup d'état. An interim government headed by his former Vice President Waheed Hassan took over. The report released last week from the Commission of National Inquiry, which was co-chaired by a retired Singaporean judge, found that Nasheed had resigned voluntarily, and that the current government is constitutionally proper. Protests have followed, and dozens have been arrested so far.

Nasheed had previously spent many years in prison, surviving torture. His background as an activist and journalist has given him a sense of the dramatic, and street protests are a part of the repertoire.

The capital is saturated with Twitter users and so his supporters easily mobilize (try the hashtags #mvprotest or #mvcoup). Meanwhile, former President Gayoom and his allies have maintained deep roots in the judiciary, legislature and bureaucracy, built over decades of patronage. There is a widespread assumption that many of the political parties employ drug gangs as muscle to make their point.

This political confrontation has distracted attention from the real work of building democratic institutions that can withstand the rough-and-tumble of partisan politics and contested changes in power. These include a neutral and competent civil service, a judiciary that is not only independent but accountable, and a civil society that is concerned with issues and processes rather than personalities. Building such institutions is the far more difficult struggle, and its outcome will determine whether this small country becomes an effective democracy, or remains a permanently troubled paradise.