Will Nasheed pull it off again in the run-off?

If there is anything unanticipated about the presidential polls in Maldives, it is the date of the run-off, second round. The Election Commission (EC) has declared that the second-round polling will be held on Saturday, 28 September, and not a week ahead as forecast earlier.

Otherwise, the Maldivian voter has given the expected verdict in the first round of polling on Saturday, 7 September. Despite hard-nosed campaigning by the four contenders, the voter has declared – for a second time in five years – that none in the race could win over their confidence and secure a mandate in the first round.

Given the contemporary nature of the nation’s politics, this time’s front-runner – and former president – Mohammed Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) has little elbow room to look for willing coalition partners for the second round in order to make up for the five-percent vote-gap that denied him a win in the first round. If the trend from the past continues, it could then be a coalition of the runners-up against the front-runner, who can at best then campaign in a ‘coalition with the people’ – which did not take the MDP to its electoral goal in the first round.

It has been a loud commentary on the state of politics since the country became a multi-party democracy five years ago. At the time, the MDP was a second-round beneficiary of a hasty coalition that was put in place after the results for the first round were out. Today, the very same party and the very same candidate who came to power on a coalition platform are contesting alone, and campaigning for a non-coalition set-up for the nation.

As per the EC declaration, Nasheed cornered a high 45.45 percent vote-share instead the 50 percent-plus-one vote required for a first-round victory. He was followed by former minister Abdulla Yameen, with 25.35 per cent, Gasim Ibrahim (24.07 percent), and incumbent President Mohammed Waheed Hassan (5.13 percent). Yameen belongs to the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), while Gasim is the founder of the Jumhooree Party (JP). President Waheed contested as an independent as his Gaumee Ittihad Party could not register the revised minimum 10,000-membership – unilaterally fixed by Parliament – after the MDP and PPM joined hands.

If electoral participation is the hallmark of any democracy, Maldives has it in abundance. The first-round voting figure this time was 88.48 percent of the total 240,000-strong electorate. It compares more enviable than the high 85.38 percent and the even higher 86.58 percent vote-share in the first and second round, respectively, in the first-ever multi-party presidential polls of 2008.

With a 15 percent increase in the electorate over the past five years, the voter-turnout this time is also a better reflection on the revived interest of the first-time voters in the democratic process than was anticipated during the run-up to the polls. However, with a second-round now on the cards, the competing parties would have to keep the voter-enthusiasm at an equally high, if not higher levels, in the second-round.

Gasim’s decision on the second-round alliance could also decide if he or his party would move to the court on their post-poll allegation of more voters than the registered number at some ballot-boxes. Elections Commission President Fuwad Thowfeek, who announced the first round results five hours after the scheduled time in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday (September 8), denied the JP’s claim but has promised to look into specific complaints.

The judiciary’s position also ensured ‘inclusive elections’ that the international community in particular had sought, considering that no one in Maldives had contested the MDP’s position as the largest political party with the highest membership – and Nasheed as the most popular leader/candidate in the country. It is another matter that the judiciary at all levels had conducted themselves with the kind of dignity that political critics would not grant it – after the MDP-dominated Government Overseas Committee in Parliament had tried to haul up three subordinate judges trying Nasheed’s case.

A ‘few more thousand’ votes?

In his first reaction to the first-round results, Nasheed reportedly said that the party would launch its second-round campaign to get “a few more thousand votes” that he did not get to make for an outright victory. To be precise, with 95,244 votes in his kitty, Nasheed would have required 10,751 more votes to make it to the presidency in the first round.

Against this, PPM’s Yameen, a half-brother of party founder and Nasheed’s presidential predecessor Gayoom, declared that they would get 60 percent and more in the second-round. Clearly, he was referring to a non-MDP coalition, which would still have only added up to the higher, yet residual, 54.55 percent after deducting Nasheed’s take-home in the first-round.

Both claims read good on paper, but the ground realities are not as simple as that. The MDP leadership, cadre, and candidate needs to be congratulated for taking their vote-share from Nasheed’s 24.91 percent first-round figure in 2008 to 45.45 percent, an unprecedented 80 percent increase over past five years. Yet, with the party straining every nerve by the hour over the past one-and-half years, without leaving anything to chance, adding every new vote and every new voter (to the turnout) in the second-round is going to be more difficult than is acknowledged.

For Yameen, coalition-formation itself is the starting-point for problems or benefits – and in that order. PPM chief Gayoom lost no time in meeting party managers to discuss and finalise the second-round strategy even as the results from the first round were trickling in. Long before the first-round polls, he had pledged his support to Gasim, his own runner-up now, should the latter end up being the number two after Nasheed.

A reluctant Gasim returned the assurance much later. With his party contesting the vote-count for the second-place, it remains to be seen how Gasim – with possibly the highest number of ‘transferrable votes’ – would react. He could be expected to insist on a done-deal with the PPM (probably) not only for government-formation but also for the subsequent local council polls (December) and more importantly for the parliamentary elections, due in May 2014. It was in the absence of a fully-operational deal that he and his running-mate Hassan Saeed found themselves out of the Nasheed government even before the ink on their purported pacts had dried the last time round.

With Gasim’s JP heading a coalition itself, Yameen and PPM would also have to talk to the Adhaalath Party and Hassan Saeed’s Dhivehi Quamee Party, as well as President Waheed and his running-mate Ahmed Thasmeen Ali. It can be protracted and painstaking, which in the glare of media lights, the Maldivian voter may not be happy about – given the character of an emerging coalition of the kind, after the past five years of instability and destabilisation.

In Gasim’s company was also Gayoom’s brother-in-law Ilyas Ibrahim, a former cabinet minister with his share of voters in certain islands. Ilyas had backed ‘PPM rebel’ Umar Naseer for the party’s presidential nomination. The two walked out of the PPM to back Gasim, and he cannot be seen as deserting the duo for Yameen without having second thoughts or commitments.

Should the second-round contest go on in a predicted way, then a lot would depend on the voter-turnout and the possibilities of many of them shifting loyalties from the first-round commitment. An exhausting first-round turnout also means that there is more room left for maneuverability. An additional percentage point or two could make the difference to the results in a way. A deduction in that figure could make any second-round prediction even more complex and complicated.

The writer is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation

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