The 2013 presidential elections are set to unfold “against a context of uncertainty, crises of political legitimacy and unprecedented levels of political polarisation,” Transparency Maldives has stated, in an extensive pre-election assessment published on Thursday.
“The latter is characterised by mistrust, categorical negative framing of one another and by the lack of self-accountability of institutions, politicians and their parties for their role in the existing political crises. The electoral background is therefore discouraging,” Transparency noted.
The detailed report identifies key challenges in the lead up to the election, such as the candidacy of former President Mohamed Nasheed, lack of monitoring of campaign financing, an extensive and entrenched culture of vote buying, and a media establishment set on fueling personality politics and further polarisation.
“The upcoming Presidential Elections are currently headed to unfold against this political context of crisis of legitimation, uncertainty of democratic transition, existing polarisations and other challenges that have been aggravated by the controversial transfer of power on 7 February 2012,” Transparency states.
“Bitter zero-sum game”
Political polarisation in the Maldives has grown in the wake of the failed all-party talks and events of February 7, leading to bitter mistrust between political factions and the pervading sense among parties that the loss of the upcoming elections “could amount to losing everything”.
“Political polarisation is characterised by mutual mistrust and radical negative categorisation of people, politicians, political parties and, sometimes, entire institutions,” Transparency notes.
“It’s characterised by the lack of self-reflective criticism, by the failures to hold one’s own self and party to account, and the inability to listen to and compromise for the callings of the other side. It’s also characterised by an apparent struggle for political power as a bitter zero-sum game.”
As a result of this polarisation, the limited space for public debate on urgently-required public policies and programs continue to be “colonised by demagogic appeals to religio-nationalist sentiments, empty motifs, and outlandish electoral promises never intended to be delivered,” Transparency stated.
“Similarly, as the polarisation is symbolised by political personalities, political debate is likely to center on personalities as opposed to issue-based discourse.”
Particular challenges around polarisation include a “lack of cooperation and dialogue among major political parties, opening up space for intolerance and violence”, “a possibility of contestation of elections results, especially if the victory is through a narrow margin”, and the risk that even if the election results are respected, “a significant segment of the polity might reject the incoming president as the representative for all the people in the true democratic spirit required in defeat.”
Transparency called for restraint among parties, appealed for policy debates, and extensive and long term observation on behalf of the international community.
Transparency stated that most of the people and institutions interviewed for the report, “irrespective of their political affiliations”, saw the potential disqualification of Nasheed from the presidential race through the ongoing court proceedings as “a major challenge” for the elections.
“None of the major political actors Transparency Maldives met was eager for disqualification of President Nasheed, although some qualified their position saying that rule of law must apply equally for all and he must face justice.
“A few major stakeholders believed it was politically motivated. A politician of a major political party saw any election victory for them without President Nasheed as a rival candidate as just a “hollow victory”.”
Should Nasheed be prevented from contesting on behalf of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), Transparency predicted political violence in the run up to the elections marring the electoral environment, boycott of the elections by the MDP, outright rejection of elections results and the incoming president by the MDP, and widespread disruptions to the elections themselves: “Transparency Maldives heard suggestions it would be altogether impossible to hold elections in some parts of the country.”
In light of controversy surrounding the judicial legitimacy of the proceedings against Nasheed, Transparency backed international calls for an inclusive election.
“As an elections-observing NGO, Transparency Maldives is of the view that if any potential presidential candidate is prevented from the Presidential Elections through a controversial process, the credibility and democratic representativeness of the elections will be called into question.
“Several international bodies, including most recently the UN Special Rapporteur on Independence of Judges and Lawyers, have criticised the state of the judiciary. There are deep disagreements as to the legitimacy of the Hulhumale’ Magistrate Court and the special bench of judges appointed to oversee President Nasheed’s trial. Some of the members of the Judicial Service Commission have openly questioned the legality of appointing a special bench. All these reasons give room to doubt the judicial processes,” Transparency stated.
“Crucially, even if elections can be held [without Nasheed], the incoming president will face immense legitimacy challenges, as is the case with the current government. Democracy consolidation is impossible under a context where legitimacy [of the government] is contested by a substantial segment of the population. Thus, key to successfully addressing the ongoing legitimation crisis is holding elections in which candidates of all major political parties are free to contest,” Transparency added, calling for the government, the elections commission, prosecutor general, judicial services commission, judiciary and human rights commission to ensure no presidential candidate is prevented from contesting.
Transparency identified vote buying as key issue in the lead up to the election.
“The issues of vote buying and influencing voters through patronage seem to have had a long history in the country,” the report notes.
Transparency enlisted focus groups to study the issue on Fuvahmulah, Kaashidhoo, and Hulhudhuffaar to try and identify why the practice was so accepted.
“A crisis of confidence in candidates’ sincerity to deliver on their electoral promises could be one of the main reasons why many people take offers. Almost all the participants in the discussions thought the candidates would not bother about them or their community post-elections, or after winning the elections. ‘They would not even answer their phones’ was a common retort,” Transparency noted.
“There are particularly vulnerable groups of people who are targets of vote buying. Youth groups who are victims of drug addiction, for example, could be offered drugs, money to buy drugs, or drugs at discounted rates, in exchange of their votes. Similarly, the less disadvantaged people, people in need of medical treatment, or the more elderly, seem to be particularly vulnerable to vote buying.
A weak elections complaints system and loopholes in the electoral legal framework “mean there is no effective deterrence against vote buying. Criminalisation of taking bribery in exchange of votes in the Penal Code also hinders reporting.”
“Finally, civil society or the EC has so far failed to even successfully thematise and problematise vote buying in the public sphere, and therefore there is a need for greater awareness on the issue among the people.”
Transparency studied the Kaashidhoo by-election, during which “vote buying reached new highs”.
“We were told by campaign agents involved in the respective campaigns that the two main candidates spent more than MVR7 million (US$454,000) an amount double the total spending limit under the law for Kaashidhoo constituency of 2231 voters.”
“In contrast, the much less populated Hulhudhufaar, vote buying took place more sparingly and discreetly. In Fuvahmulah, we were told, one candidate did not even have to campaign, but visited the island a week or so before the election and just distributed cash to his constituency.”
At the same time, most participants of the focus groups – particularly women – said that people did not necessarily vote for the candidates from whom they took money.
“There are two possible reasons why people might not vote for the candidates even if they receive offers from them: there is a general confidence in the secrecy of vote since 2008 Presidential Elections, and there is little or no fear of post-election reprisals from candidates,” Transparency stated.
“Some of the few people, who thought people vote as they take offers, ironically cited religious reasons in keeping a promise. However, some participants reported that candidates/agents influence people to show proof of their vote. Thus, some smuggle mobile phones with cameras into voting booths to take photos of their voted ballot papers or some even showed their ballot papers to representatives of candidates at the polling stations.”
Transparency suggested decriminalisation of acceptance of offers to increase people’s willingness to come forward and report the practice, while calling on the elections commission and other authorities to create an interagency task force to tackle the problem and prosecute those making offers. It also called for greater voter education, particularly surrounding vote buying and the practice of assisted voting.
The Transparency report details some concerns about the capacity of the elections commission, in particular the relationship between the commission members and the technical staff.
At the same time, “No major political party or key stakeholder questioned the independence or impartiality of the EC as an institution. No such allegation was also made against any Commission members with regard to any election.”
“A few interlocutors, however, questioned the impartiality of some of the members of the EC and some staff, and cited instances. Several interlocutors also expressed concern there existed such allegations, especially made by the staff, against some members.”
“There could be challenges to the EC to act impartially and independently in a highly polarised political environment, as members are likely subjected to external pressures. This could be aggravated by the fact that a simple majority of those present and voting in a parliamentary sitting could remove a member of the EC. While some interlocutors believed there was a possibility of removal of some members in the run up to the elections, the fact that no political party has a majority in the People’s Majlis means that removal requires cross-party cooperation, which might not be forthcoming.”
Given the charged nature of the election, training and recruitment of non-partisan polling staff was emerging as a challenge, Transparency noted.
“Another common concern by several of the interlocutors we met was that some polling workers acted in partisan manner. Transparency Maldives’ own observation, however, found polling workers were largely unbiased in the last Local Council, Parliamentary and the Presidential Elections.
“Nonetheless, with the current levels of political polarisation and shortcomings of the legal framework that allows politicisation of civil servants, the EC will find it extremely challenging to recruit nonpartisan polling staff for the upcoming elections,” Transparency stated.
Despite the many challenges outlined in the report, Transparency noted that the success and credibility of past elections – including by-elections held subsequent to the events of February 7, 2012 – gave cause for hope.
“Maldivians have in the past shown they do respect the outcomes of free, fair and inclusive elections. The upcoming elections therefore give hope. Yet to convert hope into reality requires realisation of the tri-values of freedom, fairness, and inclusiveness for the upcoming elections.
“Assuring freedom for the upcoming elections requires sustaining an electoral environment for voters to freely choose a president without fear, intimidation, and undue influence, but through the opportunities to fully exercise freedom of expression, association and assembly.
“Fairness at a minimum requires a level playing field. Thus, the existing culture of misuse of public resources by the incumbency to their electoral advantage must stop.
“Inclusiveness requires ensuring an electoral context for all to participate in elections, and ensuring that no potential presidential candidate is prevented from contesting the Presidential Elections through any questionable processes.”