Low initial turnout as local council elections proceed

Local council elections are underway in the Maldives, dispelling fears that recurring issues with the signing of voter registries would halt polls.

Early reports suggest voter turnout to be low, with a lack of general enthusiasm reflected in a muted election campaign by all parties.

A total of 2463 candidates are competing for 1100 seats – 951 island council, 132 atoll council, and 17 city council seats. Today’s council vote is only the second in the country’s history, after the landmark Decentralisation Act initiated by the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) government in 2010.

Opening and 7:30am and closing at 4:30pm, polls are proceeding smoothly after the Elections Commission (EC) opted to continue in spite of the failure to gain candidate’s signatures on for the majority of ballot boxes.

Candidate approval for the lists was included in a 16-point Supreme Court guideline issued with last October’s decision to annul the first round of the presidential elections.

The prescriptive list has subsequently been described within the international community as “onerous”, with a recently leaked Commonwealth report urging a reappraisal of the guidelines which it deemed to be at odds with both electoral law and the constitution.

As of Wednesday, the EC reported that only 147 out of 543 independent candidates competing in the elections had signed the lists so far – many citing difficulty in travelling to Malé to provide the signatures.

One council election has been delayed – in Gaafu Alifu Atoll – after the Supreme Court invalidated a previous EC decision to disqualify candidate Masud Ahmed on grounds of past criminal offences.

The close proximity of the court’s decision to polling day prompted the EC’s decision to delay in order to give Masud adequate time to campaign.

Voters were asked to go to the polls on three separate occasions during presidential elections, with a fourth poll aborted at the eleventh hour. Turnout for the final vote, however, was still over 91 percent.

Parliamentary polls are scheduled for March 22.

Eventual victor President Abdulla Yameen yesterday urged voters to choose candidates from within the government’s Progressive Coalition, though coalition member the Adhaalath Party  has decided to field separate candidates today.

The coalition’s local election campaign was launched under the banner ‘My stake – development is certain’. The group includes Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives, the Jumhooree Party, the Maldives Development Alliance, and ostensibly the Adhaalath Party.

Yameen has suggested that the development envisaged within his party’s manifesto will be hard to achieve should the people not support the governing group at the polls today.

Meanwhile, presidential runner-up Mohamed Nasheed has urged people to vote for his MDP in order to preserve and consolidate democracy against what he has labelled a return to authoritarian, one-family, rule under the leadership of Yameen – half-brother of thirty year dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.