Demonstrators in the streets after the Supreme Court annulled the first round election results  
flickr / dying regime
Demonstrators in the streets after the Supreme Court annulled the first round election results flickr / dying regime

Maldives: Democracy kidnapped

Following a fair and transparent first round of voting, the electoral process in the Maldives has become bogged down in authoritarian fraud and farce.

Azra Naseem is a writer, and postdoctoral researcher affiliated with the Institute for International Conflict Resolution and Reconstruction (IICRR), School of Law and Government, Dublin City University. Naseem is a contributing editor to Himal Southasian.

Demonstrators in the streets after the Supreme Court annulled the first round election results<br />flickr / dying regime
Demonstrators in the streets after the Supreme Court annulled the first round election results
flickr / dying regime

On 7 September 2013, 88 percent of the Maldivian electorate turned out to vote in the country's second ever democratic election. In the glorious Saturday sunshine, over 200,000 people headed to over 400 polling stations on over 200 islands scattered across the Indian Ocean to vote for one of four candidates. Hundreds of Maldivians did the same in Sri Lanka, India, Singapore, Malaysia, and the United Kingdom. Forty five percent of them voted for Mohamed Nasheed, the candidate for Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP); 25 percent voted for Abdulla Yameen, former ruler Maumoon Abdul Gayoom's half-brother and candidate for Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM); 24 percent voted for tourism tycoon Qasim Ibrahim, candidate for Jumhooree Party (JP); and 5 percent for incumbent Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik. By all accounts, the election was an exemplary display of the democratic process at work – free, fair and transparent, with less errors and discrepancies than is the expected norm in any such election. This was the consensus of all domestic and international observers from far and near. Although Mohamed Nasheed won a clear majority, he fell short of the 50% plus one required for an all out win. With eager anticipation, people began counting down days for the run-off second round between Nasheed and Yameen, scheduled for 28 September 2013. 

 It did not happen. On 11 September, Qasim Ibrahim, the tourism tycoon with deep pockets, filed a case at the High Court alleging fraud and vote rigging in the first round. He wanted the Court to allow him, and all other candidates, to see the list of people who voted on 7 September. Before the High Court could rule [ultimately in JP's favour], Qasim filed a case at the Supreme Court, this time asking not just to rule the Voters Registry void, but also for an annulment of the first round. Qasim's Villa Foundation had made 'donations' worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to students, schools and other such institutions during his expensive campaign. Given the amount of money he spent, he believed he should have got a better result. In his reasoning: "when you subtract 20,000 [the fraudulent votes allegedly received by the MDP] from those 90,000 [of the votes gained by the MDP] I believe it is us who are in the lead."

Kafka in the Court
The three-week long Supreme Court trial was a Kafkaesque farce. It accepted the case based on little else but Qasim Ibrahim's belief that he should have got more votes. 'Evidence' came in the form of secret witnesses who were hidden from view. Only their disembodied voices could be heard, claiming that they knew of incidents where people who could not have been more than 18 years of age voted at particular polling stations, but against whom they could not provide any proof. For the Supreme Court, this was evidence that minors voted in the election. It stopped short of holding a séance to summon to court the dead people who allegedly voted in the election, but did admit as evidence a secret forensic report which was so secret that even the Elections Commission, as the defendant, was forbidden from seeing it. Although the Parliament requested a copy of the report this week, so far it remains a secret. Another secret reportcompiled by the same 'expert police forensics team' was leaked on the Internet shortly after the first election was annulled. It provides a good indication of the standard of proof contained in the report that the Supreme Court considered as 'evidence'. 

 The jest was still continuing at the Court as 28 September approached. On 23 September it issued a ruling delaying the second round indefinitely. Later, it issued another order: the security forces must stop anyone who attempts to continue with preparations for the election. Commissioner of Police Abdulla Riyaz was brimming with excitement over the new powers he was granted by the Supreme Court and quickly dispatched his Special Operations police to the Elections Commission, locking the Commission members and staff inside. Police forensic experts then took control of the Elections Commission database. Outside efforts to assist the Maldivian people in their efforts to vote for a leader of their choice were not welcome. This was reiterated by the Foreign Ministry's move to summon the Indian High Commissioner to the Maldives on the same evening. The Supreme Court ruling of that night effectively took the second Maldivian presidential election hostage. 

 Meanwhile the seven judges on the Supreme Court bench continued slowly with their 'deliberations'. Article 110 of the Maldives Constitution states that the President-elect must be in place at least 30 days before the expiry of the current Presidential term (in this case 11 November). Five days before this deadline, at midnight on 7 October, the court finally reached a verdict: annul the 7 September election and hold a new one before October 20. The new election would be overseen by the police, and must adhere strictly to 16 Guidelines accompanying the verdict

Electoral heroics
The new election date gave the Elections Commission just 12 days in which to prepare for an election with over 200,000 eligible voters based in more than 400 electoral areas. Chairman of the Elections Commission, Fuwad Thowfeek, rose to the challenge with such determination that he has become the new hero of the Maldivian struggle for democracy. He quickly announced that the election would be held on 19 October, a day ahead of the Supreme Court's deadline. The model followed in the Maldivian electoral process means all eligible voters are automatically entered into the Elections Commission Registry. Only voters who are based outside their address of domicile on election day need to actively register. With the new election date of 19 October, the Elections Commission reasonably assumed that only those voters who expected to be somewhere other than where they were registered to vote on 28 September needed to re-register. 

 According to the new Supreme Court guidelines, all voters re-registering had to submit their forms with fingerprints. And, if the forms were not submitted in person, they also needed to provide fingerprints of two witnesses. Voters all over the country and abroad rushed to meet the new requirements within the time period stipulated by the Elections Commission. The Muslim Eid holidays were scheduled from 14-19 October, and many people planned to be away. As voters got busy preparing their registration forms, Qasim Ibrahim and Abdulla Yameen got busy preparing another complaint to file at the Supreme Court. It was not sufficient, they said, that only those expecting to be at a new address on the 19 October re-register. At midnight on 10 October, the Supreme Court issued another order, again agreeing with Qasim and Yameen. 

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