The 2013 Maldives presidential election is set to occur amid the political polarisation and institutional mistrust that has escalated since the controversial transition of power in February 2012.
Former President Mohamed Nasheed and his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) maintain that a coup d’etat had been orchestrated by loyalists to the former 30-year autocratic ruler President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and led by mutinying police and military officers. This was followed by the security services’ crackdown on demonstrators, months of MDP protests, and demands for early elections, as well as fears the judiciary may prevent Nasheed from contesting.
With the Maldives’ presidential election taking place on September 7, there is considerable national and international pressure on the Elections Commission to deliver. Minivan News discusses some of these key elections issues with Fuwad Thowfeek, Chairperson of the country’s first independent Elections Commission (EC), established on November 24, 2009.
The role of security services…
Leah R Malone: Is the Elections Commission (EC) document outlining the Maldives Police Service (MPS) elections mandate available?
Fuwad Thowfeek: For every election since 2008, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) has been signed between the Elections Commission and the police service. The same document – containing more or less the same content – will be prepared and signed between the MPS and EC indicating the election duties of both institutions – when we need their services, how to approach them, what they will do for us, how we will greet them, etc. This type of understanding is there, it will help both institutions to stick to our duties.
Both institutions agreed on the prepared draft more than two weeks ago, it just needs to be finalized and signed. It’s very close to ready now. Because we have so much other work pending, and our deadlines are reaching, priority has been given to other activities, but very soon we will sign this.
LRM: Was the EC notified regarding MPS ‘Operation Blue Waves’? Were the parameters of the operation developed in collaboration with the EC?
FT: Yes, it will be our MoU in their mind. They gave us information that they will be having this operation and expressed the activities that they will be undertaking with our knowledge.
We’ve had a number of meetings with the MPS and even on our advisory committee we have an assistant commissioner of police who was present at all of our meetings. We’ve also had meetings with other branches of the police service – we are very much in contact with each other.
LRM: The MPS website states that the operational priority for ‘Operation Blue Waves’ includes “stopping campaign members from breaking any campaign laws” – is that an appropriate rule for the police to be enforcing, or should this fall within the purview of the EC?
FT: If anybody does anything that constitutes any criminal act the police are entitled to stop that activity, whether it is related to elections or otherwise. But we have not yet requested police to stop any [campaign activities].
If there are any complaints we give the specific details of that place and information to the police, and we request them to take actions according to the legal framework they have. [Stopping campaign activities is] not something specifically requested of the police [by the EC], but because the legal framework allows them to address any kind of law that’s being breached, if they’re choosing to focus on that, it’s still within their jurisdiction.
Almost the whole country is working on campaigning… We don’t request anybody to just focus [on those activities] to see if there’s anything going wrong. If anybody reports [complaints] to us then we request the police to look into it. That is our main target, not to look for any crimes, just to see how the things are going on.
LRM: The MPS has stated that police will remain 100 feet away from voting centres in “normal situations”. What will happen in an ‘abnormal’ situation? If a polling station head does request the MPS enter in the event of a disturbance, what is the protocol, how soon would they need to leave the polling station?
FT: If there is any disturbance on the day of voting, first the elections officials will try to control the situation. If the officials are unable to control it, then we will request the police to come in and take the person away from that ballot box area. In that case, once he or she or the group is taken out of that area, activities will again resume.
LRM: In July, former President Nasheed voiced concerns that police would try to influence the election by having individuals create a disturbances as a pretext for police officers entering the polling station. Additionally, Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) presidential candidate Abdulla Yameen has recently said that disturbances are likely on election day.
What type of training have the polling station heads received to address these kinds of situations? If the polling station head is a younger individual, are they going to have the authority to actually stand up to a Special Operations (SO) officer – particularly in the more disputed areas where there’s anticipated tension, such as Addu City, Thinadhoo [Gaafu Dhaal Atoll], Kulhudhuffushi [Haa Dhaal Atoll], and/or Male’?
FT: First, we have given a 10 day training to the trainers, which was completed last week. We trained 77 trainers. They will be going out to all the atolls and giving two day trainings to the polling officials. The two day training will be good enough for them to understand all the laws, rules, regulations, and procedures of the polling activities.
In each polling station there will be at least seven to ten officials and about 50 percent will have experience with previous elections. The head of the polling station will be responsible for the whole team and, on behalf of the team, the head of the polling station will make all the decisions, and even if required will call for police assistance. In the polling stations we will have young [EC] officials, but the polling station heads will be experienced officials over 30 years-old. But we are trying to place people over 35 years of age as head of each polling station. In general, we are trying to employ people with previous elections experience, [who are] not very young. We always prefer to take people, if available, above 30 years of age. In cases where we don’t get enough officials, then we go for some younger adults, but mostly you will find the average age is over 30 years.
LRM: What should the Maldives National Defence Force’s (MNDF) elections role be? Have they been in contact with the EC or have you been coordinating more with the MPS?
FT: We are coordinating more with the police services and, even in the previous elections, we have been in touch with the police to see to the security of all the ballot boxes and polling stations. The police will seek assistance of MNDF only if they find it necessary to ask for help, but it’s very unlikely.
The security of the presidential candidates and running mates will be looked after by the MNDF. That is the only role they should be playing.
LRM: Police Commissioner Riyaz recently noted that a national coordination committee has been established with representatives from different political parties and relevant institutions, so the committee can address any election issues that may arise “using diplomacy rather than out on the streets”.
Is this a committee that the EC participates in? What is the committee’s purpose?
FT: I think he was referring to the National Advisory Committee. We have in this committee a representative from each of the presidential candidates, the Maldives Police Service (MPS), the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM), the Maldives Broadcasting Commission (MBC), the Maldives Media Council (MMC), Transparency Maldives – representing all the local civil society organisations – plus five members of the EC.
The purpose of the committee is to facilitate communication between the different institutions. The representative from each candidate or institution will take our decisions or discussions to their organisations and/or the concerned people.
LRM: How many EC staff will be placed on smaller islands during the presidential election?
FT: On every inhabited island we will have a minimum of seven EC officials at each ballot box, even if the number of people [voting] is less than 500, or even 200. In the tourist resorts and industrial islands we are planning to send five officials to each ballot box [location], because there will be an average of 200 people to vote at each ballot box. There are 700 to 1000 people expected to vote per each ballot box on the inhabited islands. In Male’ also we have 103 ballot boxes. For example, there are 48 boxes for residents of Male’ voting in Male’ and 55 for people from other atolls living in Male’.
LRM: How do you plan on coordinating elections observers from so many different institutions, including the EC, HRCM, Transparency Maldives, media, and other individuals from the Maldives and abroad?
FT: Actually, our planning section will be dealing with all the observers, monitors, and all the [election] officials. We will hold a training session – what they can do, what they should avoid and each individual will be given a photo ID pass, so with that ID they can visit any ballot box, whether it is in Male’, Hulhumale, Villingili, even Addu or Fuvahmulah – any place depending on their need, they can go and see it.
For the coordination [of these various individuals] we will keep some special staff for that, but we don’t have much to communicate with them. Once the training session is completed, the observers and the monitors will be very sure about their roles and work. And we are going to leave them very independent actually, so that it is their duty. That makes it very easy for us as well as easy for them.
After making their observations, they write their reports, we will like to receive all the comments and remarks from all the observers. That’s something that will help to develop our process for the next election.
LRM: Why is the 2013 presidential election being held September 7, when the 2008 election was October 8?
FT: We have to follow the dates and periods given according to the constitution, the presidential elections law and also the general election law. September 7 is the first round and then in three weeks time on September 28 we have to hold the second round if nobody gets over 50 percent of the valid votes. The president will be sworn into office in November.
In 2008, it was a special period given, as noted in the constitution. [This year] if the second round is going to be on the 28 of September, one week from that date on October 4 we will be announcing the final result. There will be over one month for the elected president to prepare to take office. I think that’s good because last time the period was too short. There was not sufficient time previously between when the president was elected and then took office. [This year] it’s only one month and one week [to prepare] or even if we count the date from the preliminary result there will be just six weeks for the president to prepare to take office.
LRM: To what extent have India and the US provided elections assistance as pledged?
FT: The Indian Elections Commission mainly and also the Indian High Commission in Male’, and USAID have been assisting. Last year, two batches of 10 people each [from the EC] were given a one month training in New Delhi in their elections institution. This year also two batches of six each received training, one batch in Bangalore and one in New Delhi. In addition, two commissioners have been given the opportunity to attend an observation tour and training program.
Also, the Indian Elections Commission has provided a team of IT experts, software developers, to produce programs for various activities of the EC, like maintaining a political party register, the dispatch of voting materials, result making of the various elections, and there are many other administrative requirements. The software will make the EC’s work simpler and help to maintain very transparent records.
For example, [regarding] the local council elections and parliamentary elections, in the Maldives people can live on any island, but they will be registered mostly on the island of their birth or their parents’ island. For example, I can live on Kulhudhuffushi for any period and there can be people lets say from 150 islands living on Kulhudhuffushi too, but for the local council election, if they are from 150 different islands then 150 different types of papers should go there. Sorting this out and sending the exact number of ballots manually – according to the law we cannot send more than 1 percent of the [islands] ballot papers, unless there are 100 voters belonging to that island – is kind of a nightmare for determining the results. Last time our staff were working day and night and found it so hard to make the appropriate packets for each island. A very powerful software [program] is needed [for this] process.
It’s very difficult and complex, but the presidential election is nothing compared to this. We are very comfortable with the presidential election – it is the same ballot paper we are sending all over the country.
Political party criticisms and next steps
LRM: The PPM has claimed that the EC has not provided adequate answers to their previous complaints/enquiries, and that the upcoming presidential election is not likely to be free and fair as there is a possibility voters’ information will be altered.
How did the EC respond to their concerns previously? Was it addressed in the Advisory Committee or was it addressed separately when speaking with their party representatives?
FT: A few times they have come and met me – twice a delegation from PPM came and met me and once a delegation met the Vice Chair of the Elections Commission.
Every time we have very clearly explained everything to them, answered all their queries and gave very detailed responses to them. But there are some demands that we cannot meet. For example, one of their demands was to see our IT section. They wanted to see the hardware and software of our network system, which we cannot do and we are not ready to do for the safety and security of our system.
Other than that we have attended to almost all their requests. We have given them very detailed answers. The interesting thing is that it is the same commission, the same five members have been in this commission for the last three and a half years. I was here for the last five years, but I was the only member during the interim period that is still with the commission – I have seen the entire progression.
We conducted local council elections – which were much more complex and complicated [than the presidential election] – without any problems we managed to do it. And we have also held three parliamentary by-elections and over 20 local council by-elections. In each election or by-election there were complaints [filed], but no one has ever complained about the members of the Elections Commission. [Now] suddenly they started questioning our competence and our ability, this is very strange.
LRM: Why do you think the PPM is putting so much pressure on the EC, since the commission addressed their concerns previously? Why do you think this is happening now, with less than 20 days to the election, when there were many months to file complaints?
FT: I don’t know actually, and regarding the questions they have raised, we have given really clear answers to them. We are not hiding anything, we are very transparent. Everything has been really clearly explained, so I don’t understand. President Mohamed Waheed and President Mohamed Nasheed are very confidant in this commission, they have no complaints at all.
We don’t hesitate to answer any questions from any party, whether it’s a political party, or media, or any social club or society. We are ready to meet each and everyone. We are willing to share our knowledge and experience. That is what even we have been hearing, that the public recognises our efforts and they have confidence in us. So it is very strange that suddenly PPM has found these types of problems with us.
LRM: What is the next step the EC will take to address these issues with the PPM, particularly if they pursue legal action? Do they have any legal grounds to stand on? If they do take these issues to court, given the need for judicial reform, do you think that could be problematic for the EC to hold the presidential election?
FT: They don’t have any grounds for legal action. That is why we are very comfortable. Even if they go to court we will have no problems at all. We will clarify everything to the court.
Today (August 22) we are trying to publish our voters list according to the ballot boxes, so this will be the list that will be used on the day of voting. A copy of this list will be given to all the presidential candidates and also to the political parties that are interested in obtaining a copy of the ballot boxes with the voters list. We have so much confidence in our work – we have done really good, professional work – that we are giving it openly [to the public] to see and tell the EC if we have incorrectly listed any person in the voter registry or if any person is missing.
If anybody is missing from the list, we will very clearly tell them why the person is missing. For example, during the last two weeks, we received complaints from 17 people that they were absent from the voter list, out of 239,593 people registered to vote. Only 17 are missing out of 239,593 [only .007 percent of registered voters].
This type of accuracy is kind of a world record. For this we did so much work. We produced a list on the government gazette website, we have been talking to the media, newspapers, radio, and TV, asking people to check their names and inform the EC if anybody’s name is missing. We have made it so easy for everybody that someone can sit at home and check our website, just enter your ID card number and if your name is not there you will get a message. Or call 1414 and one of our operators will answer, or send an SMS to 1414 and you will get an automatic SMS reply, or send somebody to the EC and ask the receptionist to check for the name in the voter list.
So much work has been done, but these are 17 people that for some reason ignored or didn’t hear our calls and they just realised it when it was too late. Another reason why some of them are not recorded [in the voter register] is that a lot of people go to Sri Lanka, India, Singapore, or Malaysia for delivery. Then after the birth of the child they don’t remember to put them in the local register, so this is one reason why some names are missed. But still we said if there is a second round we are going to include these people, because they have informed us we will take the necessary steps, however for this round there is nothing we can do.
We are not the people compiling the initial register, we are getting it from the island council offices and also the Male’ City Council office. So the primary source of the [voter] list is from all the council offices, then we have to communicate with them and also we have to check it with the Department of National Registration. It’s has been very hard work over the last five year to come up with a voter registry of this standard.
LRM: Is there any additional statement you would like to make or message you would like to give Maldivian voters and/or the international community?
FT: My request is kind of an advanced request to all the voters. Today we are uploading all the voters lists for each ballot box – make sure where you are going to vote. Please check it through our website, SMS, by making a telephone call to us at 1414, or sending someone here [to the Elections Commission] to check it.
On the day of voting, we are starting at 7:30am, so go to the ballot box as early as possible so you will not be standing in the queue for long – going early will avoid delays and facilitate all the officials. If you go at the closing hour at 4pm, the queue may be too long and you will have to wait.
Regarding the international community, we want them to observe all the [election] activities including the actions at the ballot box and also in the other areas, and to express their observations very frankly and very truly. That will help us in the future and give confidence to the world as a whole regarding how the election has gone, how good or bad it was. I’m sure we will get a very good result because we have worked very hard.