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.


Accountability of political accounts not so clear: Transparency

Transparent political financing in the Maldives is moderately but unspecifically supported by legislation, however in practice political parties and candidates can easily manipulate funding with little consequence and leaving no clear trail of public accountability.

“In the Maldives political financing is mainly viewed as a book keeping and procedural issue rather than as an issue of accountability to one’s constituency that directly affects the level of democracy within the system”, reads the report.

“Transparency in Political Financing in Maldives” is part of the Crinis Project, a joint effort between Transparency International and the Carter Center that began in Latin America in 2006, and has since been executed in Indonesia, Bangladesh and Nepal.

Using surveys, interviews and analysis carried out between November 2010 and April 2011, the project measures 10 “dimensions of transparency” in the financial reporting practices of nine political parties, 15 MPs, eight presidential candidates from the 2008 elections, and various donors. Official legislation was jointly analysed.

Ratings for both ‘Law’ and ‘Practice’ were measured on a scale of 0 to 10, where 10 indicates full compliance with standards of transparency and accountability and 0 indicates no compliance.

The project distinguishes between non-electoral funds, campaign funds, and funds received and managed by candidates independent of their parties.

The Maldives ranked 4.6 on the Crinis Index overall, qualifying as “average”. With ‘Law’ rated at 5.1 and ‘Practice’ rated at a lower 4.1, the report notes that “there is much room for improving both the legal framework on political financing and political financing practices in the country.”

Average aggregate scores in the categories State Oversight, Prevention (of manipulation), Disclosure (of information to the citizens), and Reliability, Depth and Scope of reporting leveled the total score at 4.6, the report states.

However, the majority of these categories barely reached above the ‘Insufficient’ rating, with Non-State Oversight and Sanctions, or penalties for non-compliance with the legal framework, received the lowest scores.

The only category to qualify as “good” (6.8-10) was Book Keeping, scraping in with the minimum score of 6.8.

In each category the Maldives’ legislation for political financing qualified as ‘average’ with a median score of 5.7. However the law was not rated for Reliability as it was a perception-based dimension, or for Non-State Oversight, as there is no mechanism stipulated in Maldivian law.

Practices in political financing were generally found to be‘insufficient’, notably in the categories of Reporting, Disclosure, and Prevention. Sanctions (1.0) and Non-State Oversight (1.2) scored the lowest.

Comparatively, Book Keeping and Scope (of reporting) scored positively with ratings of 7.5 and 8.4, respectively.

The report observes that the Maldives only introduced multi-party democracy in 2005 and did not have an independent elections commission (EC) until 2008.

Although reporting to the EC is mandated by law, the study finds that the legal framework enforcing this mandate ranks only at 4.5 on the Crinis scale. In practice, reporting received a score of 3.3 (insufficient), as “parties do not specify separate sources and amounts of funding” when they do report and “in most cases, the absence of the standardised reporting format also leads to inconsistencies on the information provided by parties.”

Moreover, information is poorly disclosed to the public. In the category of measures which prevent abuse of resources and conflicts of interest, the study ranked party behavior at 2.8  and practice at 3.2–both insufficient rankings. Meanwhile, the law scored an average ranking of 4.7.

“The Regulation on Political Parties does not require political parties to conduct their financial transactions through a bank account; nor is there a provision in the law prohibiting the acceptance of cash donations; nor is there an upper limit to cash donations which parties are allowed to accept,” the report states. “Since parties are not required to conduct all its transactions through a bank account, there is no way for Elections Commission to verify that parties have reported all of its income and expenditures, nor can the Elections Commission verify that parties have not accepted types of income which are prohibited by law.”

The report points out that the system of political financing is interdependent. “For example, the public’s access to financial reports depends on whether political actors submit reports to a state oversight agency. Such disclosure, in turn, is nearly impossible to obtain if parties lack an internal book-keeping system.

“As such, transparent political financing is not guaranteed even if the proper operation of one or two of these dimensions is confirmed in practice”, the report states.

The effort involved in assembling the report further highlights the system’s weaknesses.

“We had quite a bit of difficulty getting information from almost all sources,” said Project Coordinator Ma’rifa Hassan. “After a long time of asking and waiting for donors, political parties and politicians” to respond to inquiries, she said most information came from the EC “because they’re the only ones with the financial records”–in itself a surprise.

Of the fifteen candidates approached, Hassan said, only one provided a single set of records. “The rest just said ‘you can get it from the EC, we do not have it anymore.’ Our impression is that once the campaign is over and they’re elected, they don’t care about the financial aspects,” she said. “In my opinion, it’s quite absurd that a lot of political parties or campaign candidates claim they do not have those records.”

Approaching the EC was a struggle as well.

“Just getting the first appointment to explain our project was very difficult,” said Executive Director Ilham Mohamed.

Once allowed to access the information, researchers found that they had to sit with an official to look over the records, and could only copy the information by hand. “The average citizen, public official or a journalist is not going to have the drive or the time to wait and wait for an appointment, and then have to copy everything by hand,” she observed. “These things should be available, and people shouldn’t have to justify why they want to see the records in the first place.”

The team conceded that the research collided with the primary elections, and that the EC was understandably busy at the time.

Aside from their own experience, the team took the pulse of the public’s interaction with the information.

Sending out 14 volunteers from the public with a list of information to obtain, the team examined the level of proactive disclosure among donors, politicians, political parties and the EC. According to the team, none of the volunteers were able to obtain any information.

The team affirmed that the lack of transparency and accountability in political financing supports the recent finding that 90 percent of Maldivians believe that “corruption has increased” or remained level in the last three years and perceive parliament as the “most corrupt” institution, as stated in Transparency’s recent report “Daily Lives and Corruption: Public Opinion in Maldives”.

“Asking about a party’s financial records and spending practices also labels you as suspicious,” Mohamed pointed out. “A majority of people we interviewed saw this as a privacy issue. But if you’re spending money or taking money from a budget to be elected to a public post, then it is a public matter. You’re privacy stops there.”

The team observed that although the country scored ‘average’ for its laws and clauses, “the objective of having those laws and clauses is not achieved. The EC is required by law to facilitate public access to records, but it doesn’t specify how.”

The Elections Commission received the brunt of the report’s constructive criticism, along with Parliament. The report charged the EC with streamlining and enforcing the reporting methods to be used by political parties and between parties, the EC and the public. Meanwhile Parliament was tasked with amending legislation to make financial transactions among political parties and electoral candidates more transparent, for example, by requiring that all transactions be done through a specific bank account.

Other recommendations included consistent and balanced media coverage and work by civil society organisations to inform the public of political financial operations. Political parties were tasked with reporting clearly to the public and the EC in a timely manner.

“Basically, we have a lot of work to do”, the Transparency team concluded.