Indian election officials to tackle Maldives “vote-buying” culture, civic education

The Elections Commission of India (ECI) and the Elections Commission of the Maldives (EC) have agreed on a roadmap for cooperation that includes jointly developing an assistance project to enable free and fair elections later this year.

In response to an request, the Deputy Election Commissioner of India, Dr Alok Shukla, and Chief Electoral Officer of Uttar Pradesh, Mr Umesh Sinha, have been in the Maldives since March 4.  The delegation have spent the last eight days studying the EC.

“The EC asked the team of ECI to suggest measures for better implementation of the strategic plan of the [Maldives’ Election] Commission,” reads a joint press statement.

The ECI delegation issued a report identifying areas the EC needs to develop and improve.  These include; staff shortages, training needs, and the lack of information technology software. Vote buying is another important issue being addressed, the EC’s President Fuad Thaufeeq explained to Minivan News.

“We need more assistance from ECI. They have offered the most training programs [of any other actor or institution] over the last two years.

“India has had a continuous democracy for a long period of time. They have a lot of experience with democracy and conducting elections,” Thaufeeq stated.

He further emphasised that the EC is ready to work with individual organisations and any “friendly neighboring country” to strengthen their capacity and will “make good use” of the technical assistance offered.

“It would be to the Maldives’ advantage to have assistance from any country developed in elections and democracy.  Any assistance and guidance provided by any organisation – the United Nations, Commonwealth, European Union – would be much appreciated,” Thaufeeq added.

Vote-buying culture

Speaking to Minivan News, Dr Alok Shukla said that preventing voter “buy-offs” and improving civic education were two “big” challenges about which the EC was “extremely concerned”.

“Vote-buying is a worldwide phenomenon – it is almost everywhere – so one cannot say it is not happening in the Maldives,” he said.

“We had detailed discussions and the EC was very receptive to prevention and control strategies regarding campaign finance, elections monitoring, and vote buying,” stated Shukla.

Thaufeeq echoed Shukla’s sentiments regarding these corruption issues.

“Vote-buying is something experienced in every country. These types of actions are taken in secret, there’s hardly any way to prove it has happened,” Thaufeeq remarked.

“However, conducting voter education programs will minimise this from occurring.  The poor and disadvantaged are particularly vulnerable,” he added.

“We need to bring awareness to the public that this is a crime. No one should sell his or her vote to get a few rufiyaa.”

Election results in the Maldives since 2008 have been widely declared credible by local and international observers, in large part due to a crackdown on practices such as photographing ballots with camera phones, and ‘assisting’ elderly or infirm relatives to vote. However, undemocratic activities in the lead up to polling – such as vote buying, patronage and intimidation – are rampant.

Minivan News observed many such activities first-hand during the Kaashidoo by-elections in April 2012.

Capacity building

The EC and ECI have also both emphasised the need for staff capacity building training to ensure civic education programs are successful.

“Voter education for staff is important, such as courses on how to produce [awareness] materials so the public will easily look and get the message,” said Thaufeeq.

He also emphasised the need for information technology software – and the ECI’s development assistance – for voter registration, political party membership registration, and election related items.

“If the software was made for these purposes then it’s going to make work simpler, more efficient, and less time consuming.  There would not be much room for corruption or misuse of [registration] lists,” Thaufeeq explained.

The ECI also identified voter education as a “big problem,” and highlighted the need for capacity building, as well as monitoring the electoral environment.

“Experience sharing,” EC staff training and capacity building, as well as assisting the Maldives to develop the necessary software are some of the areas in which the ECI can provide assistance, according to Shukla.

Indian support

The ECI delegation have  spoke of their continued cooperation and “good engagement” with the EC to assist in any way requested.

“The ECI and Indian government are very happy to cooperate. We have a very long-standing friendship between the Maldivian and Indian people,” stated Shukla.

The ECI gave the EC a detailed presentation and report on March 10, stating their findings about the EC’s functioning and recommendations for potential improvement.

The recommendations outlined practices to “prepare for the Presidential Elections and the Local Council Elections in 2013 by strengthening weak areas of Commission Administration; identify new processes and methodologies for ECM to improve voter confidence and reduce election related complaints; and identify ways in which the EC and ECI can work together for improvement,” reads the joint press release.

“The EC will nominate one ‘nodal officer’ to work with the ECI, as well as write and submit a detailed project proposal for ECI assistance,” explained Shukla.

Thaufeeq clarified that the EC will design the project based on the ECI’s recommendations and the EC’s contextual needs.

“The proposal will be finalised in a month-and-a-half at the earliest. Six weeks are needed to draft the document,” Thaufeeq stated.

In the interim, the ECI said it agreed that the EC had the capacity to conduct free and fair elections.

“Yes, the EC has the capacity to conduct elections, but there is always room for improvement,” said Shukla.

“We are working toward holding elections September 7, however we are ready to conduct elections at any time,” stated Thaufeeq.

Transparency Maldives has said it will conduct an extensive program of election monitoring during the 2013-14 elections in a bid to ensure polls are fair and credible.