Tensions are fraught in the capital Male’ as voters head to the polling booths to cast their ballots today in the country’s first ever multi-party parliamentary election.
Campaigning ended yesterday at 6pm, but before the deadline, cavalcades of pick-up trucks and motorbikes used the remaining hours to whiz around the congested concrete capital, garlanded in party colours and blaring out Hindi music for their candidate of choice.
Rallies over the past month have become progressively more heated, as the two titans of Maldivian politics, the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and the main opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP), go head to head, each vying to win a majority in an election that will determine the legislative landscape of the next five years.
The outcome will create the country’s first democratically-elected and proportionally representative parliament, responsible for plugging the numerous gaps in the country’s legislation, and serving as a check and balance on the government.
President Mohamed Nasheed’s fighting talk was more spirited than ever in his final campaign speech on Thursday night when he spoke with confidence of his party’s ability to win a landslide majority.
“When the results are announced, it will become clear we have won 50 seats,” he said. “We will have to use the power of those 50 seats humbly. We must make use of these seats for the benefit of the people.”
Nasheed said he voted for the first time last year when he ran for presidency; in previous years, he had been arrested ahead of any elections.
“As it turns out,” quipped the 41-year-old, “the only time I was allowed to vote, I won.”
Members of the MDP, which heads the coalition government, fear an opposition majority consisting of DRP and their allies, the People’s Alliance, could result in their political ambitions being blocked at every turn.
Moreover, whispers of an opposition majority passing a vote of no-confidence against the president have been rife.
The election is the second showdown between the heads of both parties in less than a year. In October 2008, the country held its first-ever democratic presidential election, which saw Nasheed, backed by a coalition, snatch victory from the 30-year ruler, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.
Although Gayoom was defeated in the second round of the election, he won the first round with 40.3 per cent of the vote against Nasheed’s 24.9 per cent. The former president continues to have a strong support base.
Speaking to Minivan News today, Mohamed Nasheed, parliamentary candidate and former information minister, said the elections were more of a battle between two personalities rather than “two competing ideologies”.
Although still a member of DRP, Nasheed echoed the belief held by many that neither party should win a majority in parliament.
“There’s a genuine palpable reason if you give the majority to MDP that you will be giving them too much power and compromise the scope of parliamentary independence,” he said.
“In the same way, there is a palpable risk that if DRP wins a majority they may make government difficult and even at some point try and bring it down.”
Looming over the historic elections are widespread allegations of bribery and the abuse of power by political appointees. Reports of foul play from NGOs and the country’s various independent institutions have mounted over the past month.
The Elections Commission (EC) has received close to 800 complaints, out of which, 65 were related to allegations of bribery and intimidation.
The Human Rights Commission Maldives and Attorney General Fathimath Dhiyana Saeed have echoed similar concerns.
In Male’ today, most of the voters who spoke to Minivan News said they too had heard rumours of bribery.
49-year-old Adheel Jaleel, who was up early to vote for his party, said that while he had heard rumours, nobody had “been caught red-handed.”
At Arabiyya School, where voting was in full swing by midday, Elections Monitor Mohamed Ibrahim said relatives of one of the candidates had turned up to the polling station to strong-arm voters in the queue.
“I told them you cannot force people. Give them the freedom to vote for who they want,” he said.
NGO Transparency Maldives is the latest organisation to voice concern.
A statement issued yesterday highlighted three main problem areas: allegations of bribery (vote buying and vote selling), allegations of abuse of power (threats, intimidation, hindering campaigns), and compromising voter secrecy.
The EC has estimated at least 3,000 people voting locally and abroad could have their right to a secret vote compromised in situations where a single voter uses a ballot box outside his or her constituency.
Although a low voter turnout was expected by many today, in Male’ certainly, most of those strolling around bore purple-stained index fingers.
Of those interviewed by Minivan News, only one, Abdullah Moosa, a vendor at Male’s vegetable market, said he would not be voting today.
“The candidates are contesting for their Rf66,000,” said the 70-year-old, shrugging his shoulders dismissively. “The elections won’t be independent as the candidates will be deceiving the public.”
Moosa, who voted for Gayoom in the presidential elections, described the experience as “the worst” of his life.
“Parliamentarians in the Maldives are backbiting. They don’t use their time to make the laws,” he said.