When I arrived on Kaashidhoo Island on the evening of Friday April 13, the constituency’s parliamentary by-election campaign was already going full swing.
A billboard of Jumhooree Party (JP) candidate Abdulla Jabir, as tall as the island’s coconut palms, dominated the harbor front. Numerous red flags in support of Jabir and yellow flags in support of Maldivian Democratic Party’s (MDP) Ahmed ‘Dhonbiley’ Haleem were strung from every harbor light, tree and café on the beach. The island rang with the cacophony of campaign music and speeches.
The crescent shaped island of Kaashidhoo lies 88 kilometers north of Malé city. Densely forested, it is home to a population of 1700 people, most of them farmers. Together with Gaafaru Island to the south, Kaashidhoo Island comprises one of the 77 parliamentary constituencies in the country. Its previous MP, Ismail Abdul Hameed, was removed from his seat in February 2012 after being found guilty of corruption.
My colleague Daniel Bosley and I had come to observe the by-election, scheduled for the following day, April 14.
During our two day visit to Kaashidhoo, we gathered testimonies from islanders which revealed a culture of extensive vote-buying. Instead of winning votes on the strength of their legislative agendas, islanders told us both candidates handed out cash, often in the form of investment in local businesses and financial assistance for medical expenses.
We had hitched a ride to Kaashidhoo with Dhonbiley’s campaign team. The speed boat was full of burly young men who said they were Dhonbiley’s security.
“The situation is pretty bad,” a curly-haired man had told us. He estimated there were more than 30 policemen on the island for the vote. The night before, a fight had broken out between Jabir and Dhonbiley’s supporters, leading to one man’s arrest.
The by-election was the first poll since the controversial transfer of power on February 7. The MDP alleged President Mohamed Nasheed had been deposed in a coup d’état, and had called for fresh elections.
New President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan’s administration meanwhile maintained that the country’s institutions, including the elections commission, were not ready to hold free and fair elections. Hence for many, the by-election was a test of the country’s capacity to hold peaceful polls.
Our contact on Kaashidhoo was 18 year-old Ahmed Fazeel*, a student living in Male’, who greeted us when we arrived. He told us we would have to wait for accommodation as the island’s guest-houses and rented rooms were full for the night.
Resort workers and islanders living in Male’ had come back to Kaashidhoo for the vote. Fazeel said more than eight speedboats had ferried people from Male’ to Kaashidhoo that day alone. As we sat in Fazeel’s front yard among stone-apple and mango trees, he told us tensions were high on the island.
“There’s a lot of conflict. Political competitiveness has become extreme to the point people are at each other’s throats,” Fazeel said. “I will vote for Dhonbiley because he gave my aunt medical assistance.” His aunt has a common blood disorder in the Maldives, Thalassemia.
In the distance we saw JP leader and business tycoon Gasim Ibrahim leading a march of men, women and children clothed in red, chanting slogans in support of Jabir. Gasim and Jabir had laid the foundation for a city hotel to be built on the island.
Local media had reported the hotel was a Rf 34 million (US$2.2 million) investment. Jabir pledged the hotel would be completed within 18 months and that a Kaashidhoo-based company would manage the hotel. He had also established a state-of-the-art football pitch on Gaafaru Island on April 9.
“We cannot trust Jabir, he has laid many foundations like that, in his previous constituency as well,” Fazeel’s uncle Mohamed Saleem* told us. Smoking a cigarette, he said he had initially supported Jabir. The MDP had fronted Jabir as a candidate until he swapped parties after the transfer of power.
“Jabir only donated six-air conditioning units to the mosque. But Dhonbiley donated over Rf 100,000 (US$6500) rufiya,” Saleem continued. “Also, Jabir first said he will build a resort, then said a 5-star luxury hotel, and now it’s simply a guesthouse.”
That night we met Mohamed Shahid* an MDP supporter, in a dimly-lit cafe for dinner. A TV on the cafe wall showed scenes of yellow-clad MDP supporters marching in support of Dhinbiley through the narrow streets of Kaashidhoo.
Shahid, 21, made a living from diving for sea-cucumbers. For him, the biggest problem the island faced was a lack of job opportunities.
“The people of this island will vote for money, they don’t have any principles,” Shahid said. “The problem is that people want to force you to vote for who they support. Everyone should have the right to vote for whoever they want,” he told us. “Arguments within families have gone to the point that people are losing face.”
“Both parties are handing out cash, in the guise of extending assistance for medical care. Some people even use the money for drugs.” Shahid said.
He said heroin addiction rate was high among Kaashidhoo’s youth population.
Shahid said he had at first supported Jabir. “But Jabir does not fulfill his promises. He first approached the youth cub, Ekuverige Tharika, and gave the club Rf 20,000 (US$1300). Nothing else. But Dhonbiley gives us coffee, petrol for motorbikes and phone credit. It’s very easy. Even the island’s harbor was started under President Mohamed Nasheed,” he said.
The harbor had been damaged in the South Asian tsunami of 2004, and construction of a new harbor had started in 2012.
After dinner, we ventured out through the sandy streets of the island. Candidates had to cease campaigning for votes by 6:00pm on the eve of polling; hence, the island was fairly quiet. However, people continued to mill around the campaign offices.
Outside Jabir’s brightly lit campaign office, we met Mariyam Sheeza* , 31, who told us she supported Jabir because he had promised to bring development to Kaashidhoo.
“Jabir is building a guesthouse. We only have agriculture on the island. But this hotel will create jobs, especially for women,” she said. Sheeza said she had four children to support and the guesthouse would give her the opportunity to earn some money.
“Dhonbiley does not check on the people. He does not know if the people have a second meal in a day or whether we sleep on the floor or on mattresses,” she said. Moreover, she said Dhonbiley only worked for MDP supporters’ benefit.
“When MDP was in power, 388 farmers asked for subsidies, but Dhonbiley gave subsidies to only 150 farmers. The subsidies were only given to MDP supporters. We don’t know what happened to more than Rf 22,000,” she said.
“Dhonbiley ate the subsidies,” shouted a group of men lounging on joalis within the campaign office. At that point, a lanky man came up to us and said JP leader Gasim Ibrahim had invited us in. As we walked in, he showed me a large bloody graze on his arm. He had sustained the injury in the previous night’s scuffle. “MDP paid Rf 2000 (US$130) to some young man to beat me up,” he told me.
Gasim, a hefty bespectacled man and one of the country’s wealthiest resort tycoons, was sitting with a group of men at a broad white table under a white canvas canopy strung with red and green flags. Women served juice, eggs dyed red and sausages to supporters. Gasim said he was confident of Jabir’s win the next day.
“Jabir has already performed in Majlis. He was an MP during the formulation of the constitution. He is successful and courageous. He came with a manifesto to the people to create job opportunities and development,” he told me.
“Dhonbiley has failed in everything in his life, even running a business. People do not accept MDP anymore. They are not religious. They want to destroy this country’s Islamic social-fabric,” he said.
Gasim had been involved in the MDP’s formation, but after being jailed in 2004 he had defected to President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s party, and took up the position of Gayoom’s finance minister. He ran for presidency in 2008, and supported Nasheed against Gayoom in the second round of elections after no candidate managed to garner more than 50 percent of the votes.
He had served as Nasheed’s home minister for 20 days but quit, criticising Nasheed for being authoritarian.
“They are irreligious. Maldivian citizens do not support that. They cannot build idols here. Nasheed was in power by spending a lot of money, and by coercing and intimidating people. The people appreciate what we are doing for them. We know the people’s needs. We know this island needs agriculture, the other one needs fisheries, and what the youth want,” he told us. He predicted Jabir would win with over 80 percent of the votes.
Voting day arrived on Kaashidhoo with a brief but heavy rain storm. We saw Jabir, a short dark man, pass by in a car. He waved hello to us as we sought shelter under a broad Hirundhu tree on the harbor front. Daniel and I were looking for a cafe for breakfast when the storm had hit. We also saw a white van with four police officers passing by. When the rain thinned, we headed to an open air cafe near MDP’s main campaign office for breakfast.
We sat down near a group of three boys heckling a mute man to vote for MDP. A short-haired white-shirted boy said, “Jabir is a dog! What has he ever done for you?” Another threatened, “We buy coffee for you, we buy cigarettes for you. We will cut you off if you don’t vote for MDP.”
A few minutes later, Dhonbiley walked in for breakfast with MP Ahmed Easa and a group of his supporters.
“The problem is the current government came to power through a coup,” the tall former football star told us. “They want to delay early elections. They want to try and show the international community the atmosphere is not right. Tension is high. Jabir’s supporters have sprayed graffiti calling me a bastard.”
He pointed to graffiti on the building next to the cafe. The words had been sprayed over. I recalled a banner I had seen the night before that proclaimed Dhonbiley had been banished for fornication.
“My supporters have reached the limit of their patience, but I have told them to keep calm,” he told us, and said he was confident of a win that day. He also claimed Gasim had walked through the island the night before handing out Rf 4000 (US$260) for votes.
After Dhonbiley left, we overheard the boys at the next table on the phone, requesting their breakfast be put on the MDP’s bill.
The rain left shallow puddles on the sandy street that quickly disappeared in the sweltering heat. Daniel and I arrived at the polling station at around 9am. Two booths had been set up at the Kaashidhoo School and voters queued peacefully under the shade of a tree in the school yard. Two policemen sat a few meters away from the voters.
Outside, both candidates had set up exit poll booths under wide parasols, and were crossing off people who had voted. The booths were also serving drinks to supporters.
Outside the polling booths we met Aisha Mohamed*, a skinny scarf-clad girl with a mole on her cheek, wielding a large Nikon camera. Aisha, 24, was a photographer, and supported the MDP. Her dream was to open a photography studio on Kaashidhoo.
“People have to go to Male’ to take passport photos for ID cards and passports. So we asked Jabir to invest in lighting equipment and he offered a partnership,” Aisha said.
“But when he changed parties, I did not want to vote for him. I cannot change my party like I change my clothes. So the investment fell through,” she said.
Aisha took us to a juice shop near the school, which served the popular Jugo juice, a cold fruity-flavored, sugary sweet milk-blend. The shop’s owner, Amjad* offered us free drinks and said he was serving free drinks to MDP supporters. When I asked him why, he said that Dhonbiley had invested in a deep freezer for the shop.
By midday, most of the island’s registered voters had cast their ballots. The streets were calm, an atmosphere of expectancy prevailed throughout the island. The police presence was palpable. Aisha, Daniel and I saw Jabir standing in view of the school near the island’s health centre. He said he was confident of a win but declined to comment further. Outside the health centre, Aisha introduced us to her eldest brother Ahmed Azeez*, 53, a JP supporter.
Azeez worked as a laborer at the health centre. He earned Rf 3000 (US$195) per month.
“I support Jabir because he gave my daughter return tickets to India for a medical trip and Rf 10,000 (US$650) for expenses. Since she was 11 years-old, she has had lesions on her skin. She is 24 now, and she has two children. We still haven’t found a cure,” he said. He also said he hadn’t been able to gain any assistance from the government’s free health-care scheme Aasandha.
Later Aisha told me when Jabir had been the MDP candidate she had contacted Jabir for the medical assistance.
“I asked my brother to vote for Dhonbiley. But he refused. But we could have gotten that assistance from Dhonbiley too,” she said.
* Names changed