Maldives: Democracy kidnapped
By Azra Naseem
25 October 2013
Following a fair and transparent first round of voting, the electoral process in the Maldives has become bogged down in authoritarian fraud and farce.
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 CourtThe 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 heroicsThe 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.
Every single person who was not going to be at their place of domicile on election day – even if they were going to be exactly at the same place as where they had registered to vote on 28 September must register again, with three sets of fingerprints demanded the Guidelines. This was a Herculean task to complete within 24 hours, the time period which the Elections Commission again gave for registration. All three parties – MDP, PPM and JP – opened up branches of their meeting halls to members of the public who wished to register. All in all over 71,000 people re-registered to vote on 19 October.
On 14 October, as the deadline for submitting all the forms was coming to an end, PPM members poured into the Elections Commission to protest against the Commission’s alleged inaptitude. The Commission database, the security of which had been compromised after the Supreme Court’s decision to allow the Police and the National Centre for Information Technology (NCIT) full access to it, started behaving oddly just before the 24-hour period was up. Complaints were pouring into the Elections Commission with only four days to go before the election and the public was in a state of panic – would the problems with the compromised Elections Commission server be corrected in time? Would there still be an election the next morning?
PPM members shouted, screamed and ranted inside the Elections Commission premises, disrupting the registration process for five hours. Commission members, staff and specially recruited election officials had been working for the past 72 hours, with about two hours sleep every 24 hours. Many of them had not gone home during that period. Their focus was getting the registration forms processed within the set deadline. According to a senior source inside the Elections Commission, of the complaints received at the Elections Commission, 60 percent came from MDP members, 5 percent from Qasim’s JP and zero percent from the PPM. This shows very clearly that the PPM’s shouting inside the Elections Commission office was laying the groundwork for what its leaders were planning: another trip to the Supreme Court to have the election cancelled on grounds that the preparations were not being conducted according to the Supreme Court Guidelines.‘Missing’ candidatesBy 10:00 p.m. on 17 October, the Elections Commission was ready for the final step in its preparations. According to Supreme Court Guideline No. 5, all candidates had to sign off on the Eligible Voters Registry once the Elections Commission had it ready. Although the complaints bureau still remained open, and complaints were still coming in, the Elections Commission had compiled the Registry and now had it ready for the candidates to sign. The Commission gave the candidates until 7:30 a.m., Friday 18 October, to examine and sign the Eligible Voters Registry. At midnight on Thursday, the PPM and JP dispatched letters to the Elections Commission stating they would not sign the Voters Registry unless a sample number of fingerprints on the forms were verified. This was an impossible demand. Neither the Elections Commission, nor the Department of National Registration have the capacity to verify fingerprints. The only institution capable of carrying out the task was the Maldives Police Service, which had earlier said it would take six months to verify 60,000 fingerprints. According to the letter sent to the Elections Commission by Abdulla Yameen, seen by Minivan News, he wanted 72 hours to physically examine every single one of the 71,000 registration forms that had been submitted. Having sent the letters, the two candidates – Qasim and Yameen – unbelievably, disappeared.
Before 7:30 a.m. on Friday, the Elections Commission, the Department of National Registration (on whose database the Eligible Voters Registry is based), and the Maldivian Democratic Party approved and signed the lists as required. The only thing preventing the election from going ahead the next day were the missing signatures of Qasim and Yameen. Supreme Court Guideline No. 5, which required that the final list “has been agreed upon as valid by the Elections Commission, candidates or their representatives” was effectively a veto handed to each candidate to cancel the election if they so wished. Qasim and Yameen chose to exercise this power and hid for the entire day, refusing to answer phone calls or meet with Elections Commission representatives who went to look for them at their homes. At about 3:30 a.m. on 19 October, after waiting for over 18 hours with no news from the two candidates, the Elections Commission announced the bold decision to start dispatching ballot boxes and the Voters Registry without the candidates’ signatures. If the candidates would sign before 7:30 a.m., the last ballot box would still have reached its destination on time, and the election could still go ahead. Things had come down to the wire.
19 October dawned without the bright sunshine typical in the Maldives. In the pouring rain, election officials arrived at the Dharubaaruge in Male, where they were to assume responsibility for their ballot boxes and leave for their respective polling stations. At 6:30 in the morning, however, an hour before polling was due to start, the Elections Commission announced in an emergency press conference that the police had made it impossible for the election to go ahead. Without the candidates’ signatures, the police refused to transport the ballot boxes to the polling stations and laid siege to the Elections Commission once again, ensuring that the 19 October election could not go ahead as planned. For the second time since 7 September 2013, authoritarians within the three branches of government and its institutions had taken over by holding the election hostage.
On 21 October, Monday, the beleaguered Elections Commission announced a new date for the polls – 9 November for the first round, and 16 November for the second round. The date goes well beyond the constitutionally stipulated deadline of 12 October, and if a second round is necessary, will plunge the country into a constitutional vacuum without an elected leader. This, it appears, is the authoritarians’ goal. If there is no elected leader by 11 November, the Supreme Court verdict says, the Maldives enters into a ‘de facto state’ where the legal doctrine of State of Necessity can be invoked, in which the current government can continue ‘legally’ until such time as an election can be held. If the authoritarians have anything to do with it, this may be an extremely long time coming. For holding the Maldivian democracy hostage are the same forces that toppled the first democratically elected government half-way into its first five year presidential term: the loyalists of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled the Maldives for 30 years (1978-2008).
As discussed in Himal Southasian in April 2011, authoritarians were from the very beginning an impediment to democratic consolidation in the Maldives; an authoritarian reversal always looked to be around the corner. Later, on 7 February 2012, as recounted in detail in this publication, they engineered a coup with the Maldives Police Service (MPS) and the judiciary as chief collaborators. The role of the judiciary as an impediment to democratic consolidation in the Maldives has by now been well documented both domestically and internationally. A corruption case was initiated in July 2013 against Justice Ali Hameed; complaints are pending against three other members of the Supreme Court, and heading the MPS as Commissioner is Abdulla Riyaz, one of the three civilians who took charge of the security forces on 7 February and facilitated the downfall of Nasheed’s government. In charge of the Ministry of Defence is the second of the three civilians, Mohamed Nazim, a retired colonel discharged from the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF) in 2009. The third, Mohamed Fayaz, a former member of the MPS, is now the State Minister of Home Affairs and is reported to be playing a key role in directing the National Centre for Information Technology, the same organisation given access by the Supreme Court to the Elections Commission database, the security of which was compromised during the elections. At the top remains Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik, the man who was installed as president by the authoritarian forces on 7 February 2012. Behind them all is Gayoom, a man who knows the Maldivian psyche like no other, and knows exactly which buttons to push and when.
Even though the calling off of the 19 October election was made known to the Elections Commission and the public only a few hours before the election was due to begin, the decision had been arrived at the previous day. The National Security Council, comprised of the President, Vice President, Minister of Home Affairs, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Defence Minister, Chief of Defence and the Attorney General (Azima Shakoor, who declared the Maldivian government’s contract with GMR-Malaysia Airports Holdings Berhad to develop and manage Male’s Ibrahim Nasir International Airport void ab initio) met that afternoon to discuss whether or not the election should be allowed to go ahead on the next day. According to a press conference given by the Maldives Police Service, it blocked the election following advice given to them by this same Council. Remarkably, the MPS also claimed the Commonwealth had also advised it to block the election, but retracted the statement almost within the hour after it was challenged by an indignant Commonwealth. Summoned to the Parliament’s Security Services Oversight Committee, Commissioner Abdulla Riyaz denied that the police had obstructed the election, maintaining that his forces only refused to provide security. On Tuesday 22 October, the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives found otherwise, saying the police “deprived all Maldivian citizens of the right to vote stated in Article 26 of the Constitution” and “robbed the Elections Commission of its legal status.”
Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik – without whom Nasheed’s ‘resignation’ could not have been covered up by the Commission of National Inquiry Report and legitimised with the blessing of the international community – has also met the press since the last cancelled election. Waheed was adamant he has absolutely no self-interest in the election, having withdrawn from the contest on 12 October citing ‘national interest’ and doubts about the integrity of the Elections Commission. He did not fool anyone – reports of the dismal 5 percent he received in the 7 September election were widespread in the international media. It is hard to believe Waheed’s claim that he is ready to step down once the presidential term ends on 11 November, not just because he twists facts easily, but also because the same day he announced his intentions, the PPM decided Waheed should stay as President beyond 11 November if no election has been held by that date.
Further reasons to doubt the possibility of an election on 9 November are the united efforts by the PPM and JP to manufacture distrust of the Elections Commission among the public. Both parties have been repeatedly calling for the resignation of the Commission members on the basis that they have acted against the Constitution and have allowed the voter database to be compromised. By manufacturing discontent against the Elections Commission and forcing their resignation, the authoritarians hope to delay the election for a long period of time.
Mohamed Nasheed, who clearly wants an election, held a rally attended by thousands of people on Tuesday night under the banner ‘Leadership by Vote’. In a rare move, he addressed Gayoom directly, promising that he will not let the Maldives return to the kind of ‘elections’ that were held during Gayoom’s rule, where Gayoom received a 90 percent ‘Yes’ vote in every public referendum. “I promise you,” he told the cheering crowd, “I will not go home until you, the people of the Maldives, have the opportunity to vote in a free and fair election in which you can choose the leader you want.” This is a promise that a majority of Maldivians want to see fulfilled. They are as determined to have an election as the authoritarians are to prevent one. If there is no election on 9 November 2013 – which, frankly, looks extremely likely – the Maldivian people, are not going to ‘go home’ until they wrest their right to vote from the iron grips of the former dictator and his loyalists. A full-scale confrontation between democracy and dictatorship, as intense as any other in the world, is imminent in the small island nation of the Maldives.
~Azra Naseem holds a PhD in International Relations from the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University, Ireland and is currently based in Male.