Maldives set for polls after months of turmoil and brinksmanship

Additional reporting by Ahmed Naish

Voting stations will be open November 9 from 7:00am to 3:30pm. Counting will begin half an hour after polls close, with provisional results expected by 11:30pm. A run off will be scheduled for November 10 if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the total votes.

Overseas ballot boxes will open at varying times in each country: Sri Lanka, New Delhi and Trivandrum – 8:00am to 4:30pm; Malaysia and Singapore – 10:30am to 7:00pm; London 9:00am to 5:30pm.

Check where you are registered to vote using the EC’s 1414 SMS system (text 1414 in the format ‘VIS [National ID #]’, or by visiting

The Maldives is set to head to the polls on November 9 after months of political turmoil and brinksmanship over the suspension, delay, annulment and obstruction of the 2013 presidential election.

Former President Mohamed Nasheed, ousted from power on February 7 2012 by a mutinying police force that attacked military headquarters, armed opposition demonstrators and stormed the state broadcaster before giving him an ultimatum to resign, emerged the clear front-runner in September’s polls with 45.45 percent of the vote.

Nasheed was set to face Abdulla Yameen (25.35 percent), half brother of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in a run-off on September 28. However the vote was suspended by the Supreme Court after third-placed candidate, resort tycoon Gasim Ibrahim (24.07 percent), filed a case alleging vote rigging – despite unanimous positive assessments by more than 1000 local and international election observers.

Gasim was joined in court by Yameen and the Attorney General, Gayoom’s former lawyer Azima Shukoor. Despite a sex video scandal impinging the integrity of at least one judge on the seven member bench, the court on October 8 in a 4-3 majority annulled the vote on the basis of a secret police report that was never even shown to the defence counsel, let alone the public.

That report, since leaked (and translated here), was this morning dismissed by an expert UN review panel.

Following the annulment, the same court held a succession of midnight hearings imposing increasing sets of restrictions on the Elections Commission’s conduct of the polls, including demands that it redo the entire voter re-registration process, and conduct extensive fingerprint verification of forms when no institution in the country had the capacity to do so on such a scale.

One of these restrictions, giving candidates the power to veto the polls by not signing the voter lists – was used by the police as justification for forcibly obstruction the rescheduled election from taking place on October 19, after Yameen and Gasim disappeared and failed to answer phone calls ahead of the signing deadline.

The court’s annulment followed two weeks of street protestsstrikes,travel warnings and rumblings of concern from top ranks in the military.

The question in recent weeks, both on Male’s streets and in diplomatic circles, has not been “Who will win the election?”, but instead, “Will there be an election at all?”

“Will there be an election?”

That may finally have been answered after international patience with the delaying tactics appeared to run out last week.

UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay accused the Maldives’ Supreme Court of interfering excessively in the elections, “subverting the democratic process and violating the right of Maldivians to freely elect their representatives.”

“I am normally the first to defend the independence of the judiciary, but this also carries responsibilities… The Supreme Court appears set on undermining other independent institutions, stifling criticism and public debate, and depriving litigants of the legal representation of their choice,” Pillay stated.

US Ambassador Michele J Sison declared that after “weeks of political bickering and questionable delaying tactics, Maldives democracy is now in peril.”

“Further delays in Maldivian Presidential elections and continued misuse of institutions have already led many in the international community to question the legitimacy of both the process, as well as the outcome of those elections,” she stated.

“Ultimately, the power of any government rests in the consent of its people. If citizens are not allowed to freely express their desires, then those that pretend to govern cannot be perceived as having legitimacy to govern,” she said, calling on Maldivians to “salvage their democratic future”.

The UK’s Minister of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Hugo Swire, declared in British parliament that “Anything short of [scheduled elections] will be unacceptable. I say again to those people listening in the Maldives: the world is watching closely and it wants democratic elections, a democratically elected president and no further impediment to that to be created artificially by anyone in that country, which deserves so much better.”

British MP Karen Lumley went a step further: “What happened smacks to me of a child who cannot win a board game, so they tip over the board,” she said of the decision to annul the September 7 vote.

Following a visit to Male’ this week, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs Oscar Fernandez-Taranco declared Saturday a “decisive moment for democracy in the Maldives.”

“It is time to allow the people of the Maldives to express their voice and their legitimate will through the ballot box. A continued failure to do so would be a serious setback to consolidating democracy in the country, with potentially serious repercussions, including a very likely negative impact on the already fragile economy,” he warned.

Surprisingly, the final major obstacle to the holding of tomorrow’s polls – Yameen and Gasim’ s continued refusal to sign the voter lists – suddenly evaporated on Wednesday night following the pair’s meeting with Nasheed and President Waheed.

“We made this difficult decision because of the rising anxiety of citizens and the financial loss faced by the state every day that the vote is delayed, to minimise foreign influence on this beloved nation, and to provide the party’s utmost cooperation to elect a president by November 11 by compromising to prioritise national interest ahead of the party’s interest,” read a statement from Yameen’s Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM).

The party insists it remains skeptical of the Elections Commission and the integrity of the polls.

Gasim meanwhile told local media he had suddenly reversed his decision not to cooperate in an effort to save the nation from “starvation”.

“The country should not be impoverished because of our bickering at this stage. So as the country has reached this state I don’t want to be obstinate and refuse to sign the list,” he said.

He continued to allege that the EC was “biased” and seeking to install Nasheed as president, despite asserting “100 percent” confidence that he would win.

Nasheed was blunt: “The truth is they finally signed the voter list because a German tourist agency told them to.”

An economic resolution

If a political resolution solution was not found and the country plunged into electoral and constitutional limbo, the final resolution was always going to be economic.

The dire state of the Maldives’ financial affairs was revealed this week by Finance Minister Abdulla Jihad, in a report to parliament’s finance committee.

Tourism growth (as measured in bed nights) flatlined in 2012, plunging to negative 0.1 percent from 15.8 percent growth in 2010 and 9.2 percent in 2011.

“The main reason for this was the political turmoil the country faced in February 2012 and the decline in the number of days tourists spent in the country,” the ministry’s statement acknowledged.

Activists this week hijacked World Travel Market twitter hashtag, flooding the feed of the world’s largest tourism expo with images of political brutality and calls for boycotts of Gasim’s Villa Hotel group.

Foreign banks have meanwhile refused to buy treasury bills (T-bills) from the Maldives, with some even refusing to roll over previously-sold T-bills, while others only agreed to buy them at interest rates of 11 percent, Jihad conceded.

While MVR500 million (US$32 million) a month was needed to pay salaries and allowances for state employees, government income in some months was just MVR300 million (US$19 million), Jihad noted, leaving the government no option but to draw on the central bank’s reserves.

Central Bank governor Fazeel Najeeb meanwhile warned that these reserves – barely several months worth of imports – had fallen so low as to place the Maldives on the verge of having to print money.

The State Trading Organisation (STO) then declared that oil supplies would run dry as soon as November 10 due to its US$20 million debt to suppliers, largely a result of the failure of state-owned companies to front up almost US$40 million in payments, and begged the central bank to bail it out.

The Maldives is dependent on oil for tourism, fishing, power and transport, with petroleum imports amounting to US$248.4 million in the first half of 2013 – representing 29 percent of the cost of all goods brought into the country.

A day later, the European Union rejected the Maldives’ application for an extension of duty free status for fish imports, due to country’s failure to comply with international conventions concerning freedom of religion and women’s rights.

The Maldives exports 40 percent of its US$100 million fishing industry to the EU, its single largest export partner by value. The imposing of the 14-20 percent duty as of January 2014 would lead to a loss of US$1.66 a kilo exported, revealed Economic Development Minister Ahmed Mohamed.

On his last day in office, President Mohamed Waheed meanwhile approved the lump sum payment of three months’ wages to cabinet ministers, a total expenditure of MVR 2 million (US$129,702).

“Who will win?”

With the registries signed, election materials have been dispatched across the Maldives with officials already arriving with ballot papers in the southern-most atolls of Addu and Fuvahmulah.

Transparency Maldives has announced it is ready to monitor the elections, while elections observation teams from the Commonwealth, UN, EU and countries including India and Japan are present in the country. Elections Commissioner Fuwad Thowfeek told local media he has been assured by Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim that police would cooperate with tomorrow’s election.

The number of eligible voters in the revote is 239,105, just a few hundred short of the 239,593 registered to vote on September 7, which saw an 88 percent voter turnout.

Campaigning by Yameen and Gasim during the court saga has been muted compared with the lead up to September 7, while the MDP has maintained regular rallies and protest actions following the annulment.

The impact of the annulment and attempts to delay the polls, as well as the behaviour of the Supreme Court and international opprobrium on voter sentiment makes it difficult to predict support for Yameen and Gasim based on the results of the first round. This is especially true in the case of Gasim, whose energetic, incentive-based campaigning ahead of the first round appears to have been diluted by the focus on the court trial.

Foreknowledge of the annulled first round results may also impact non-committal voters in unpredictable ways.

Following the results of the first round, in which the incumbent President received just 5.13 percent of the vote, the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) which had been in coalition with Waheed defected to Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and Waheed withdrew from the race.

Based on the results of the first round this could be expected to lend up to five percent to the MDP, helping the party close on the more than 50 percent of the vote it so confidently predicted it would achieve ahead of September 7.

Minivan News will be covering the November 9 election via live news blog.


Elections Commission draws order of candidates on ballot paper

The Elections Commission has determined the order of candidates on the ballot paper for the 2013 presidential elections in September.

The four candidates from top to bottom are Gasim Ibrahim (Jumhoree Party), Dr Mohamed Waheed (independent, incumbent president), Abdulla Yameen (Progressive Party of the Maldives) and Mohamed Nasheed (Maldivian Democratic Party, former President).

Yameen and Gasim attended the ceremony to announce the ballot order, according to local media.


US Embassy backs US$2.5 million election assistance program for the Maldives

The US Embassy in Colombo has announced a US$2.5 million election assistance program in the Maldives, to be implemented over the next 18 months.

According to a statement from the embassy, the program will “promote an open, democratic election by increasing civic participation… promote the integrity of the electoral process in the Maldives in advance of the September 2013 elections, and the subsequent local council and parliamentary elections.”

Speaking of the launch, US Ambassador Michele J Sison said the program would seek to ensure “that all Maldivians participate in credible, transparent and inclusive elections.”

According the statement, the program will be implemented by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) with Maldivian partners Transparency Maldives and the Raajje Foundation.

“The program aims to support the election process through resolution of disputes and voter education. This assistance will provide national and regional forums for dialogue with policy makers and civic leaders as well as dispute resolution and mediation training for community leaders,” the US Embassy stated.

“For Maldivian citizens, the program will launch a public awareness campaign to promote political reconciliation and a free and fair election. In addition, civic and voter education programs will provide training and grants for community based organisations to increase citizen participation and improve voter education across the atolls,” the statement added.

The US election assistance comes on the back of an extensive pre-election assessment published by Transparency Maldives ahead of the September 7 elections, highlighting vote-buying, political polarisation, and credibility as key challenges.

The elections were set to unfold “against a context of uncertainty, crises of political legitimacy and unprecedented levels of political polarisation”, Transparency stated.

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 noted.

“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.”

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.

The country’s two largest parties have meanwhile turned their focus to campaigning, with the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) annoucing Home Minister Dr Mohamed Jameel as running mate of presidential candidate Abdulla Yameen – half-brother of former autocratic leader of 30 years, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

The opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), headed by former President Mohamed Nasheed, has claimed it has  been pledged 125,000 votes during its door-to-door campaigning, a figure which if correct would translate to 61 percent of the vote assuming a 2008-levels of voter turnout (~85 percent).

Key factors affecting the September election will include widespread and heavily polarised sentiment surrounding the February 2012 transfer of power, and the preferences of 31,000 new young voters – a 15 percent increase on the number of eligible voters compared with the 2008 presidential election.