Q&A: “There are people who want to block this vote” – Elections Commission Chairperson Fuwad Thowfeek

The Maldives’ Supreme Court issued an injunction on September 23 to indefinitely delay the presidential election’s second round until a verdict was reached in the Jumhooree Party (JP)’s case against the Elections Commission (EC).

Ultimately the Supreme Court ruled to annul the first round of the 2013 presidential elections, held September 7, citing a secret police report on alleged electoral irregularities, despite unanimous positive assessment of the polling by more than a thousand local and international election observers. The apex court’s verdict issued around midnight on October 8 included 16 point guidelines the EC was to follow to hold new presidential elections before October 20.

Giving it just 11 days to prepare for the next round of the presidential election, the Supreme Court has also issued subsequent rulings dictating managerial and administrative tasks the EC must undertake while preparing for the repeat first round.

With the October 19 repeat first round less than a week away, Minivan News discusses some of the challenges faced by the commission with Fuwad Thowfeek, Chairperson of the country’s first independent Elections Commission (EC).

Leah R Malone: In a previous interview you noted that the EC would normally require 45-60 days of preparation to hold a presidential election in accordance with the Maldives’ constitution, presidential and general elections law. Will the Elections Commission be able to hold the presidential election’s repeat first round on October 19, given the limited preparation time available? Are you satisfied with how preparations are proceeding?

Fuwad Thowfeek: The Maldivian people have so much trust and faith in the Elections Commission. Our future, our democratic country, depends on how we act and react at this time.

240,000 voters believe in our work, and for the sake of the people coming to keep up the democratic process and rule of law we are sacrificing ourselves to get these things done in the short time given.

People everywhere I go tell me “Thank you for your work, don’t quit, don’t do anything to take us back [to dictatorship], don’t step down, don’t resign”. So many people are so worried [the election will not take place]. They have so much faith [in us], we should not and cannot let the Maldivian people down. We are not going to accept defeat. The election will be conducted, the votes counted, and the results released.

The EC’s staff are ready go ahead [with the election], they will give their maximum 100 percent support. This is the time we all have to sacrifice our holidays and our pleasure for the people of the country. Rarely will a person get a chance to do that for their nation.

We have been working very hard day and night with no break, there are three staff shift rotations [so the commission is working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week]. We also have to work through the Eid holidays.

We are making it possible for people of the country [to exercise their right to vote]. If this was only for our personal benefit we would not be [sacrificing so much].

Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM)’s Vice Chair Abdul Raheem Abdulla said he thinks it is impossible to hold the election October 19, so we will make the impossible possible.

(Recent videos on social media show PPM MP Abdul Raheem Abdulla using obscene language against Speaker Abdulla Shahid and insulting his mother during disorderly protests in Parliament by MPs of the government-aligned PPM and Jumhooree Party (JP).)

Death threats continuing

LRM: Has any progress been made regarding the investigation into the death threats received by Elections Commission officials? Or identifying who set fire to the lot next to your home?

FT: There has been no progress in identifying the individuals sending death threats to EC officials or determining who set fire to the lot next to my home.

LRM: Are Elections Commission officials still receiving death threats?

FT: I have not received any additional threats about being stabbed, but general threats against the Elections Commission are continuing. This evening (October 11) we received a threat that the voter registration section would be attacked, people would throw stones at the windows and burn things there.

When we received that information we wrote the police and Maldives National Defense Force (MNDF) requesting protection of our office.

It’s very sad. There are a group of people who want to block this [vote], those who know they may not do well, so they are trying to buy time and make the election difficult.

But I hope these things can be handled by the police and MNDF. The whole world is watching and wants this election.

Police elections role

LRM: Supreme Court’s verdict in the Jumhooree Party’s case against the Elections Commission mandates that the police should play a substantive role in handling the logistics and security of the election and ballot papers. However, after receiving the EC’s complaint that the security forces had ‘hijacked’ the EC the evening before the presidential elections scheduled second round, the Prosecutor General’s Office stated it will take any necessary action to ensure the constitution is upheld.

In this context, can police play an impartial role while adhering to the Supreme Court’s verdict, or does their involvement compromise the electoral process?

FT: We were told there should be more of a police presence from printing [ballot papers] until voting takes place. This time a police officer will accompany Elections Commission officials for every movement [of the ballot boxes].

Police officers still must adhere to 100 foot rule during polling and counting. Police should not be present [within a 100 foot radius of the ballot boxes] during counting. [After counting] once the boxes are in a certain place, police will then guard them.

The way the police reacted on the 27th [of September] was quite unfriendly… but we are trying to cooperate and I hope they will also give cooperation because this Supreme Court case has ordered the EC and all government institutions to follow the verdict.

(The EC was forced to postpone the presidential election’s second round, scheduled to take place September 28, due to a lack of state cooperation that prevented the commission from holding a “free and fair vote without intimidation, aggression, undue influence or corruption”. The announcement was made September 27, shortly before the EC secretariat was surrounded by Special Operations police with orders from Police Commissioner Abdulla Riyaz to take over the building and ballot papers should it proceed with election preparations.)

LRM: Was the EC ever provided the details of the police intelligence report that the Supreme Court’s verdict to annul the presidential election’s first round was primarily based on?

FT: The EC had not received the police intelligence prior to the Supreme Court verdict, but two days after the verdict was issued we were sent some documents and files. The document the EC received was “another analytical report based on the lists [in the police intelligence report] sent to the Supreme Court”.

We have still not been given the original police report based on their intelligence findings and observations. That report was passed between the Maldives Police Service, the Attorney General and President Waheed before being given to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court based their verdict on these claims, not the EC’s records.

We are going to review the Department of National Registration (DNR) data ourselves and will verify if the data [in the police report] is true or false and differentiate between whether it is five percent or 100 percent accurate. We will analyse it as soon as there is time, but right now there is no time to verify and cross check.

(The police intelligence report has not been made public and was not shown to the Election Commission’s defence lawyers).

Supreme Court guidelines

LRM: How have the Supreme Court guidelines impacted the EC’s preparations for the presidential election’s repeat first round?

FT: I have been speaking with the Supreme Court Chief Justice to get clarifications regarding the verdict’s guidelines for the EC.

A difficulty is our ballot box officials will not be able to keep their cell phones, so one polling station official will have to remain 100 feet away with their cell phone. If any incident occurs a ballot box official will then have to walk over to the polling station official so they can call for assistance.

Another difficulty is that there are nine days of public holidays for Eid [and government institutions will be closed during that period].


LRM: How has the Supreme Court ruling issued October 11 that ordered the commission to restart the entire elections re-registration process impacted preparations?

FT: We understand from the Supreme Court that [in their order] they were referring to old forms without fingerprints [being invalid].

65,000 people previously registered on the ‘dhaftharu’ [the special registry for Male’ residents who are from other islands]. They have to re-register because there was no thumb print on their registration forms. They need to fill the registration form in the presence of two witnesses and all three must thumbprint the form. Although there is no way for the EC to verify the authenticity of their thumbprints.

I believe by cancelling over 65,000 [people’s voter registration] we will not be able to provide the opportunity to register many of them within the limited time. So many people will not be able re-register within the one-and-a-half days and although they will have the option to travel [back to their home islands to vote] it will be a burden for them: time and money.

For overseas voters, the one way to email their registration is after they fill the form, with two witnesses, and the necessary thumbprints they can then send it via email to someone who will then need to physically bring it to a Maldives Embassy. For example, if a Maldivian voter lives in Scotland, after filling the voter registration form, he or she can email it to a friend in London, who will then need to take it to the [Maldives] Embassy in London.

(The Elections Commission opened a 24-hour re-registration window – that ended at 4:30pm October 12 – for all eligible voters, after the Supreme Court ordered the EC to disregard re-registration efforts for the annulled presidential elections, and restart the entire process with fingerprinted forms for all voters who wish to vote in a location other than their permanent address.)

LRM: With the High Court ruling that it no longer has jurisdiction to hear election related cases, due to the Supreme Court’s verdict, how can individuals seek redress?

FT: I’m sure there will be so many complaints because ID cards [names and addresses] will have slight variations compared to the DNR’s voters list.

Now if an individual wants to seek redress regarding their complaints, they must file the case with the Criminal Court. Because of the Supreme Court verdict, the special consideration for the High Court to see to all election related matters is no longer valid.

Government Institutions

LRM: The Election’s Commission previously cited lack of state cooperation as one of the reasons it was prevented from holding a “free and fair [second round] vote without intimidation, aggression, undue influence or corruption” on September 28 as constitutionally-mandated. Are government institutions currently cooperating to re-hold the presidential election’s first round on October 19?

FT: The Elections Commission has been promised all government institutions will provide whatever they can [for the election to take place].

We have also been in contact with the acting Finance Minister and acting Home Minister to get input as well as the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF), Maldives Police Service (MPS), the Department of National Registration (DNR), the National Center for Information Technology (NCIT), the Civil Service Commission (CSC), the Maldives National University (MNU) and the Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO).

MNU staff from the Faculty of Education and different sections because we need more people to do the work in they very limited time [before October 19], so we are asking them to come here [to the EC]. Some work has been delegated, for example the DNR is assisting with photo formatting.

LRM: The Supreme Court guidelines also require government institutions to enhance the commission’s database security, so how is the EC protecting its data from external influences?

FT: The EC’s data is still secured. We are using the NCIT’s expertise in areas where risk to data security is not involved. For example, the format of voters’ photos and attachments are different at the DNR and EC, so NCIT is converting the photo formatting and providing support in different technical areas.

Commission member resignation

LRM: With commission member Ibrahim ‘Ogaru’ Waheed resigning last week due to health reasons, when will the EC seek a replacement?

FT: We will seek a replacement after the presidential election, because the process takes time. The president has to call for applications, then send nominees to the ‘Majlis’ [‘Parliament’], and in many cases the names submitted will not be accepted.

To establish the current commission, and select the five members, the whole process took four to five months. It would probably take at least two months to find a replacement for Waheed.

International observers returning

LRM: What international election observers will be returning for polling on October 19?

FT: I’ve had friendly conversations with the German, American, and UK Ambassadors by phone to provide them updates. Right now the German Ambassador is here and we recently met in Male’ and the US Ambassador will be arriving from Colombo.

One of my colleagues in Brussels called to ask about EU observer teams coming and I said they are most welcome to come observe the election. The Indian High Commission has said a team of Indian observers are coming and the Commonwealth is also coming with a team.

We are very delighted to have them here and have sent written invitations to all the countries and organisations that came to observe polling on September 7, which included Japan, Thailand, India, Pakistan, the UK, US, Commonwealth, and EU.

Hopefully everyone will return to observe the election.


MDP numbers boom while DRP declines: EC

A sustained recruitment campaign in the atolls has led to a surge in the number of Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) members.

The party welcomed 5,000 members in the last few months, taking its total membership to 28,995 as of 10 December 2009. At such a pace the party will soon overtake the 30,215 tally of its rival, the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP), which recorded a slight decline according to President of the Elections Commission Fuad Thaufeeq.

The grassroots MDP campaign involved establishing network coordinators for every atoll and enlisting existing members to recruit others, explained MDP registrar general Ahmed Shahid.

“We’re not going to stop until we’re on top,” Shahid said. “We have a further 600-800 applications currently processing, and there are many more coming in from the atolls. However the weather has been bad over the last few months and we’ve had some trouble collecting the applications.”

Despite the overall gain the party had also lost some members, he admitted.

Dr. Mohamed Mausoom, Secretary-General of DRP, questioned the recruitment tactics of the MDP.

“They have appointed island councillors to recruit members, paid for by the state. But despite this they’ve only gained 5000 members,” he said.

Mausoom suggested that the number of new “sincere” MDP recruits was no more “than about 2,000.”

“The rest of them – although they are yellow on the outside, their heart is blue,” he speculated, suggesting that in some cases people were being pressured to join the party in order to keep their jobs.

“There’s no direct instruction, but [in the case of some government workers] it can be ‘sign up [to the MDP], or quit,'” he alleged. “This is the type of environment people are working in. I really can’t say what the MDP is up to anymore, but we have noticed many of their members signing up with us.”

The MDP’s gain was irrelevant, Mausoom said, because “as a proportion of the voting population, political membership numbers are not significant in the country.”

If the MDP overtakes the DRP, “it will be a joke”, he added. “The Maldivian population are among the most politically educated in the world; if you walk around Male and you’ll find hardly anyone who voted for MDP.”

In the May parliamentary elections, MDP won a total of 48,000 votes or 31 per cent of the vote, while the DRP and its coalition partner People’s Alliance won a combined total of 47,400 votes.

DRP won a total of 39,000 votes or 25 per cent.