Government scales down water relief effort

President Abdulla Yameen’s administration has scaled down water relief efforts today by ending the distribution of bottled water to residents of capital Malé.

“We decided to stop the bottled water distribution because there is no shortage of drinking water at the moment. There is also enough water at corner shops for purchase,” Minister of Defense Colonel (retired) Mohamed Nazim said at a press conference last night.

The government had set up water distribution centers after a fire at Malé Water and Sewerage Company (MWSC) on December 4 gutted the sole desalination plant in Malé, leaving 130,000 people without drinking and running water.

The opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) condemned the government’s decision with party Chairperson Ali Waheed saying that the decision will lead to further hardship and claimed the Maldives is currently seeing its worst days since the 1970s.

A Bangladeshi navy ship, the BNS Samudra Joy, arrived in Malé today with 100 tonnes of bottled water and five reverse osmosis plants, the Foreign Ministry has said.

Meanwhile, custom built panels to replace the damaged panel boards connecting electricity generators and desalination plants at MWSC arrived in Malé from Singapore today.

MWSC has now started releasing water once in the morning and once at night. Water was available for four hours this morning and will be available from 7:30 pm – 12:00 am tonight.

The government has also decided to establish a 20,000 ton ‘strategic reserve’ of water to prevent another crisis, using funds gathered through the US$ 20 million ‘Malé water crisis management fund.’

Nazim, who also heads the water crisis task force, said that funds would mainly be used to recover costs which are not covered by insurance, the construction of the 20,000 ton water reserve and to cover the cost of relief operations. Individuals and corporations who contributed to the relief effort will all be reimbursed, he said.

The fund’s establishment has garnered criticism from the opposition and civil society groups, who have demanded transparency in the fund’s utilization.

In response, Nazim said the fund was set up with “very good intentions.”

“Information about the fund would be released in a very transparent manner. I urge the public to refrain from politicizing the fund.” he added.

Anti-corruption NGO Transparency Maldives has demanded a break down of the US$20 million and said “the decision to seek donations from the public raises questions given that MWSC is a private, profit-making corporation with 80 per cent government shares.”

Private donors have contributed US$5.5million to the fund so far.

Protests demanding free water continued in Malé last night, but were disrupted for the third time by a group of seven young men.

Minivan news observed six to seven young men who were hiding within the protesters jump on a truck and start vandalizing the generator powering the sound system. One attacker lifted up the generator and threw it on the ground.

Police immediately moved in and arrested the attackers. Minivan news saw little to no resistance from the attackers during the arrest.

Several eyewitnesses later told Minivan news that the attackers were praising President Yameen as they waited for a police vehicle to take them to the police head quarters.

“President Yameen is the best thing to have happened to the nation,” one of the attackers was reported as saying.

Another eyewitness told Minivan News that he heard one Special Operations (SO) police officer insulting Former President Mohamed Nasheed while stating those arrested would be released the next day.

A police media official confirmed to minivan news that seven men were arrested last night in relation to the attacks at the protest.

A similar incident occurred on the previous night when three young men attacked the protest armed with box cutters.

On Wednesday, Mirihi Island resort has donated a temporary desalination plant capable of producing 100 tonnes of water to the Indhira Gandhi Memorial Hospital.

The MNDF has also started distributing disposable cups, plates and cutlery to cafés in Malé.


NGOs suggest government’s failure to engage is damaging civil society

As last week’s NGO conference came to close, the award ceremony – with Minister of Defence Mohamed Nazim acting as chief guest – suggested strained relations between government and civil society.

Of the 22 organisations taking part in the conference organised by the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives – 12 from Malé and 10 from the atolls – not all stepped up to receive certificates from the minister.

“I believe there are more relevant figures to be the chief guest at an NGO conference the country’s defense minister,” explained one NGO representative who boycotted the ceremony.

The main aim of the conference, in addition to providing networking opportunities, was to create a forum in which the participants could share the scope of the work done by the NGOs as well as discussing greater issues faced by civil society.

NGOs involved suggest that many of those issues involved the government’s lack of effective engagement, perhaps typified by the recent decision of the immigration department – headed by minister Nazim – to introduce exit permits for migrant workers.

The controversial scheme was reversed less than two weeks after being introduced after complaints from NGOs, who had not been consulted adequately prior to its introduction.

Groups present at the conference listed migrant workers rights as one of their main areas of interest, alongside health rights, children’s rights, women’s rights, and disability rights.

Lack of support

Discussing concerns raised during the conference, Maldivian Democracy Network’s (MDN) Shahinda identified the government’s lack of financial support for NGOs as the most pressing issue facing civil society.

“For several years, the government has allotted financial support for NGOs in the state budget. However, we have never seen the support being fully realizsed even though it is stated in the budget,” said Shahinda.

HRCM Vice President Ahmed Tholal noted that, although financial support for NGOs is included in the state budget, a lot of the expenditure is spent on sports association rather than NGOs working for human rights.

“Given the lack of state financial support, NGOs often have to resort to individuals and donors,” continued Tholal. “The current public perception is that if an NGO has a donor, then it must be one sided or politically motivated. This is not true in most cases.”

A general lack of perception or an understanding of the work civil society is doing was another key issue raised during the three-day conference.

While speaking at the closing ceremony, one participant representing Muraidhoo Ekuveringe Jamiyya from Haa Alif Muraidhoo, said there was little appreciation of work done by NGOs from either the public or from government institutions.

Chairperson for the Maldives Association of Physical Disabilities, Ahmed Mohamed, commented that the general public remains unaware of disability rights.

“I think it is the duty of the government to increase awareness or work on empowering NGOs so that we can increase our outreach in spreading awareness,” said Ahmed.

MDN also suggested that the poor public appreciation of civil society and the lack of acknowledgement of NGO could be traced back to a lack of engagement from the government.

“Every year, our annual reports are sent to the home ministry which just files it. The reports detail what we do, our achievements and other relevant information. All of this is not acknowledged by the state so the general public is unaware of the work we do,” complained Shahinda.

Tholal also stressed the importance of state acknowledgment of NGO work, suggesting that public perception is shaped by the state’s response to work done by NGOs.

“NGOs are institutionalised and organised voices of the public. Government institutions have to respect statements and reports from NGOs whether they agree or disagree with the political ideology of the government,” noted Tholal.

Shahinda added that the public sometimes has unrealistic expectations of NGOs, saying that organisations do not have the capacity to deal with every single issue.

An intimidating future?

HRCM Vice President Tholal stressed that NGOs role as human rights defenders was being jeopardised as there was insufficient space and capacity to operate effectively and independently.

NGOs at the conference voiced concern over the prevalence of threats and measures made by the state to intimidate and silence civil society and other independent institutions.

“There have been numerous threats and attacks on civil society organisations and individuals. Government has done little to no work to address these threats,” said Shahinda.

Most recently, Supreme Court initiated a ‘suo moto’ proceeding against the HRCM for its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) submission made to the UN, while denouncing the HRCM’s suggestions that the judiciary was controlled and influenced by the Supreme Court.

A similar proceeding – in which the court acts as both plaintiff and judge – was used in the ousting and prosecution of Elections Commission President Fuwad Thowfeek and Vice President Ahmed Fayaz in February.

In October 2013, the home ministry launched an investigation into comments made by Transparency Maldives and the Tourism Employees Association of the Maldives (TEAM), saying that it would not allow any organisation to challenge the law.

Staff at anti-corruption NGO Transparency Maldives have also been subject to death threats as well as one employee being physically assaulted during the recent Majlis elections.

Asked about the future of the civil society in the Maldives, Tholal reiterated the importance of state acknowledgement in order to improve the current atmosphere.

“I believe that the civil society is the most important voice in raising issues against the state in making it more responsible,” said Tholal.

While things may get difficult, Shahinda expressed confidence that important work carried out by civil society groups would continue.

“If things do not change, it is going to be more and more challenging. However, I am sure these challenges alone will not hinder the work of the civil society”.


Maldivians not allowed to express or assemble freely: Maldivian Democracy Network

The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) and the Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN) jointly reiterated their call on the government of Maldives to make substantial changes to the laws on assembly and association at a press conference held yesterday (August 17).

“The people of Maldives are not allowed to express or assemble freely, which is a fundamental right they are taking away from them,” argued Shahinda Ismail, Executive Director of MDN.

Changes need to be made in order to meet the country’s constitutional guarantees of fundamental rights and legal obligations under international human rights law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Maldives is party, read a press release from FORUM-ASIA.

One of the main issues raised at the press conference was the freedom of association law. According to this law, protests cannot take place near schools, mosques, or hospitals, Shahinda told Minivan News.

Malé – the capital of the Maldives – is home to approximately 150,000 residents in 6 square kilometers of land, making it among the most densely populated capitals of the world. Therefore, facilities like schools and mosques are abundant.

“When you really look at Malé, there’s a mosque on every block,” Shahinda argued, “there is hardly any space left for people to demonstrate.”

“The restrictions on protesting must be made in consideration with the geography of the landscape,” she added.

Restriction not regulation

Another point highlighted at the conference was the wide range of powers given to police in controlling demonstrations.

“The problem we see is it doesn’t provide for police to protect demonstrators. It doesn’t regulate the right, it curbs the right [to demonstrate],” Shahinda stated.

“There must be a provision where police engage with demonstrators and try to bring order before deciding to disperse,” she added.

Furthermore, Shahinda the highlighted vague phrases in the legislation, which she fears are open to numerous interpretations.

“The word ‘reasonable’ used many times. It’s very subjective and we don’t feel it’s appropriate to use in the law.”

Another line could be interpreted as restricting right to assembly solely to police, added Shahinda.

“It’s just one line, a sub-section off a sub-section,” she notes, “but it can be interpreted in a number of ways.”

The right to freedom of assembly doesn’t not stand alone, it has to come with freedom expression and association,” Shahinda warned.

Shahinda went on to connect the issues raised to the recent disappearance and feared abduction of Minivan News journalist Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla.

“The problems that people face in freedom of expression – Rilwan is at the height of it,” said Shahinda.

“We opened the press conference raising concern and calling on authorities to speed up the investigation, and we ended on the same note.”

Systemic Failures: Transparency Maldives

Earlier this month, a press release from local NGO Transparency Maldives (TM) revealed they are currently working to reform the Associations Act in order to create a more enabling environment for civil society.

“Governance, transparency and functioning of CBO’s [community based organisations] will improve if the systemic issues in the regulatory framework are addressed,” TM announced.

Christopher Roberts, TM’s consultant on freedom of association, released a set of comments and recommendations discussing the international best practices of freedom of association legislation and to share his experience of freedom of association in transitional democracies.

The report addresses several legal issues with the 2003 Associations Act of the Maldives.

“The definition of associations provided by article 39(a) of the act is circular and inadequate,” states Christopher Roberts, legal expert on freedom of association.

“The law should instead adopt the definition used at the international level,” argued Roberts.


Week in review: December 8 – 14

This week saw the repeatedly delayed budget introduced to the People’s Majlis. Coming in at MVR17.5billion rufiya, the budget – purportedly revised to incorporate President Yameen’s austerity measures – eclipses all previous spending programmes.

A report from the World Bank made clear the tough task the new government faces in nursing the economy towards good health. The report stated that the Maldives continues to spend “beyond its means”.

Noted areas of excess include a high civil service wage bill, with the World Bank suggesting that the government’s short term financing measures risked further damaging the economy.

The exploitation of the country’s persistent shortage of dollars by criminal elements was exposed this week as police reported the activity of thieves masquerading as legitimate exchangers of currency.

When accused of illegally obtaining a budget support loan, recently reappointed Finance Minister pleaded desperation. Abdulla Jihad argued that he had sidestepped the onerous approval procedure to avoid a financial catastrophe in May 2012.

Yameen took fitful steps towards fulfilling his campaign’s austerity pledges this week, ordering the reduction of salary for two grades of state minister – though the cut was only around 12.5 percent instead of the 30-50 mooted before the election.

Similarly, the new government appeared to have reneged on its pledge to provide cash-handouts to old-age pensioners – opting for an insurance scheme instead.

Government performance

Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, however, appeared pleased with his half-brother’s performance thus far, praising his handling of Indo-Maldivian relations while the Defence Minister discussed enhanced military cooperation with Indian counterparts.

The indistinct ‘National Movement’ this week suggested ulterior motives in the bureaucratic thwarting of its plan to celebrate the eviction of Indian infrastructure giant GMR, whose deal to develop the international airport was prematurely terminated twelve months ago.

Elsewhere, the coalition member Adhaalath Party, quashed rumours that it had parted ways with Yameen’s government this week, despite previous reports that it intended to campaign independently in the upcoming local and parliamentary elections.

The ‘roadmaps’ for the first one hundred days of the government continued to be drawn this week, with comprehensive lists now produced in the areas of  transport, health, and immigration.

Whilst the Transport Ministry has promised finished plans for the redevelopment of Ibrahim Nasir International Airport, the health minister talked of significant changes to the IGMH public hospital.

The police service also joined in the policy pledging, with its own promises to improve its service and to build public trust in the institution. The Police Integrity Commission this week suggested that the prosecutor general assist in this task by prosecuting two officers it had found to have been negligent during the arson attack which destroyed Raajje TV in October.

The vacancy at the head of the PG’s Office did not stop the filing of charges in the 8 year old ‘Namoona Dhoni’ case. Pro-democracy activists – prevented from reaching Malé for a national demonstration – now face fresh charges of disobeying lawful orders.

Trust between the Supreme Court and the judicial watchdog appeared scant this week as the Chief Justice baulked at the JSC’s re-shuffling of a number of senior judges. Members of the JSC were later reported to have rejected Chief Justice Faiz’s legal objections.

Corruption and human rights

Confidence in the transparency of the public in public institutions also appeared to be on the wane this week, as Transparency Maldives’ Global Corruption Barometer (GCB) survey revealed that 83 percent of its sample felt corruption to have increased or stayed the same over the past two years.

Despite only appearing mid-table in the list of organisations perceived as being corrupt, the MNDF reacted disproportionately to the local media’s reporting of the survey, labelling CNM’s article on the survey “highly irresponsible journalism”.

The Anti Corruption Commission announced the discovery of graft in the capital’s largest housing programme. The highest number of bribes reported in the GCB was in the area of land services.

International human rights day was observed by the government and civil society in the same week the president ratified the country’s first anti-human trafficking bill. Whilst welcoming the new law, both the Human Rights Commission and the immigration department suggested that institutional strengthening would need to accompany a successful anti-trafficking policy.

Finally, this week saw the release of a United Nations Population Fund report, calling on the state to review existing practices related to sexual behaviour within the judicial process, law enforcement, education and health sectors.

The report stated reproductive health services ought to be expanded to non-married couples as evidence makes clear that the assumption sex does not, or should not, occur outside of marriage is increasingly out of step with social realities.


Parties, parliament, judiciary most corrupt institutions in the Maldives: Global Corruption Barometer

The judiciary is considered one of the Maldives’ most corrupt institutions, according to a poll conducted for Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer, along with parliament and political parties.

Of those surveyed, 69 percent felt the judiciary was a corrupt institution, while two percent of families admitted paying bribes to judges.

The political sphere was considered extremely corrupt, particular parliament (78 percent), and political parties (75 percent).

The military (44 percent) was reckoned to be almost as corrupt as police (47 percent), the business community (42 percent) and the media (48 percent).

Unlike the majority of other countries surveyed, the Maldives was notable for the high levels of perceived corruption in almost every institution with 30 percent of those surveyed even considering religious institutions corrupt. NGOs were considered the least corrupt, but the figure still stood at 24 percent.

The survey also found a strong trend in the perception that corruption had increased in the past two years, with 19 percent of those polled stating that it had increased “a little”, and 38 percent “a lot”.

At the same time, 84 percent agreed ordinary people could make a difference fighting corruption.

‘Counter-level’ corruption in the Maldives is generally low relative to other countries in the region, however the Maldives has a complex and long-standing patronage system that in many cases may not be recognised as corruption – MPs, for example, justified salary increases to Swedish levels in 2011 on the grounds that constituents were demanding greater amounts of money and services such as scholarships and medical treatment from their representatives.

DRP MP Rozaina Adam in January 2011 observed to Minivan News that an MP’s salary “is also seen as a welfare fund by many people. If anything goes wrong, constituents go to their MPs. It has been like this for a long time now, and I feel we need to move out of it – these are things that are supposed to be done by the government, but it has been a tradition for a long time to ask MPs. When someone comes and says their nine year-old needs a kidney transplant, it is hard to say no. In the long term, this means that only rich people can be MPs.”

The patronage system is also evident in the culture of vote buying, recognised in Transparency Maldives’ pre-election assessment for the September elections as a key target for voter education ahead of the polls.

“A crisis of confidence in candidates’ sincerity to deliver on their electoral promises could be one of the main reasons why many people take offers. Almost all the participants in the discussions thought the candidates would not bother about them or their community post-elections, or after winning the elections. ‘They would not even answer their phones’ was a common retort,” Transparency noted in its report.

“There are particularly vulnerable groups of people who are targets of vote buying. Youth groups who are victims of drug addiction, for example, could be offered drugs, money to buy drugs, or drugs at discounted rates, in exchange of their votes. Similarly, the less disadvantaged people, people in need of medical treatment, or the more elderly, seem to be particularly vulnerable to vote buying,” the NGO added.

Large scale projects and training programmes promoting transparency and governance in the Maldives are also subject to subtle internal resistance, a senior government official responsible for such a project recently confided to Minivan News.

Senior authorities and civil servants were loathe to give up the discretionary power that came with their position in favour of an equitable system, the official explained, as this removed their influence as the ‘go to guy’ for particular services. While provision of such services was not often leveraged for money, it did often extend to ‘in-kind’ favours such as resort trips for family members, the official said.


Vote-buying, political polarisation, credibility critical challenges for 2013 elections: Transparency Maldives report

The 2013 presidential elections are set to unfold “against a context of uncertainty, crises of political legitimacy and unprecedented levels of political polarisation,” Transparency Maldives has stated, in an extensive pre-election assessment published on Thursday.

“The latter is characterised by mistrust, categorical negative framing of one another and by the lack of self-accountability of institutions, politicians and their parties for their role in the existing political crises. The electoral background is therefore discouraging,” Transparency noted.

The detailed report identifies key challenges in the lead up to the election, such as the candidacy of former President Mohamed Nasheed, lack of monitoring of campaign financing, an extensive and entrenched culture of vote buying, and a media establishment set on fueling personality politics and further polarisation.

“The upcoming Presidential Elections are currently headed to unfold against this political context of crisis of legitimation, uncertainty of democratic transition, existing polarisations and other challenges that have been aggravated by the controversial transfer of power on 7 February 2012,” Transparency states.

“Bitter zero-sum game”

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 notes.

“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.”

As a result of this polarisation, the limited space for public debate on urgently-required public policies and programs continue to be “colonised by demagogic appeals to religio-nationalist sentiments, empty motifs, and outlandish electoral promises never intended to be delivered,” Transparency stated.

“Similarly, as the polarisation is symbolised by political personalities, political debate is likely to center on personalities as opposed to issue-based discourse.”

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.

Nasheed’s candidacy

Transparency stated that most of the people and institutions interviewed for the report, “irrespective of their political affiliations”, saw the potential disqualification of Nasheed from the presidential race through the ongoing court proceedings as “a major challenge” for the elections.

“None of the major political actors Transparency Maldives met was eager for disqualification of President Nasheed, although some qualified their position saying that rule of law must apply equally for all and he must face justice.

“A few major stakeholders believed it was politically motivated. A politician of a major political party saw any election victory for them without President Nasheed as a rival candidate as just a “hollow victory”.”

Should Nasheed be prevented from contesting on behalf of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), Transparency predicted political violence in the run up to the elections marring the electoral environment, boycott of the elections by the MDP, outright rejection of elections results and the incoming president by the MDP, and widespread disruptions to the elections themselves: “Transparency Maldives heard suggestions it would be altogether impossible to hold elections in some parts of the country.”

In light of controversy surrounding the judicial legitimacy of the proceedings against Nasheed, Transparency backed international calls for an inclusive election.

“As an elections-observing NGO, Transparency Maldives is of the view that if any potential presidential candidate is prevented from the Presidential Elections through a controversial process, the credibility and democratic representativeness of the elections will be called into question.

“Several international bodies, including most recently the UN Special Rapporteur on Independence of Judges and Lawyers, have criticised the state of the judiciary. There are deep disagreements as to the legitimacy of the Hulhumale’ Magistrate Court and the special bench of judges appointed to oversee President Nasheed’s trial. Some of the members of the Judicial Service Commission have openly questioned the legality of appointing a special bench. All these reasons give room to doubt the judicial processes,” Transparency stated.

“Crucially, even if elections can be held [without Nasheed], the incoming president will face immense legitimacy challenges, as is the case with the current government. Democracy consolidation is impossible under a context where legitimacy [of the government] is contested by a substantial segment of the population. Thus, key to successfully addressing the ongoing legitimation crisis is holding elections in which candidates of all major political parties are free to contest,” Transparency added, calling for the government, the elections commission, prosecutor general, judicial services commission, judiciary and human rights commission to ensure no presidential candidate is prevented from contesting.

Buy-election fears

Transparency identified vote buying as key issue in the lead up to the election.

“The issues of vote buying and influencing voters through patronage seem to have had a long history in the country,” the report notes.

Transparency enlisted focus groups to study the issue on Fuvahmulah, Kaashidhoo, and Hulhudhuffaar to try and identify why the practice was so accepted.

“A crisis of confidence in candidates’ sincerity to deliver on their electoral promises could be one of the main reasons why many people take offers. Almost all the participants in the discussions thought the candidates would not bother about them or their community post-elections, or after winning the elections. ‘They would not even answer their phones’ was a common retort,” Transparency noted.

“There are particularly vulnerable groups of people who are targets of vote buying. Youth groups who are victims of drug addiction, for example, could be offered drugs, money to buy drugs, or drugs at discounted rates, in exchange of their votes. Similarly, the less disadvantaged people, people in need of medical treatment, or the more elderly, seem to be particularly vulnerable to vote buying.

A weak elections complaints system and loopholes in the electoral legal framework “mean there is no effective deterrence against vote buying. Criminalisation of taking bribery in exchange of votes in the Penal Code also hinders reporting.”

“Finally, civil society or the EC has so far failed to even successfully thematise and problematise vote buying in the public sphere, and therefore there is a need for greater awareness on the issue among the people.”

Transparency studied the Kaashidhoo by-election, during which “vote buying reached new highs”.

“We were told by campaign agents involved in the respective campaigns that the two main candidates spent more than MVR7 million (US$454,000) an amount double the total spending limit under the law for Kaashidhoo constituency of 2231 voters.”

“In contrast, the much less populated Hulhudhufaar, vote buying took place more sparingly and discreetly. In Fuvahmulah, we were told, one candidate did not even have to campaign, but visited the island a week or so before the election and just distributed cash to his constituency.”

At the same time, most participants of the focus groups – particularly women – said that people did not necessarily vote for the candidates from whom they took money.

“There are two possible reasons why people might not vote for the candidates even if they receive offers from them: there is a general confidence in the secrecy of vote since 2008 Presidential Elections, and there is little or no fear of post-election reprisals from candidates,” Transparency stated.

“Some of the few people, who thought people vote as they take offers, ironically cited religious reasons in keeping a promise. However, some participants reported that candidates/agents influence people to show proof of their vote. Thus, some smuggle mobile phones with cameras into voting booths to take photos of their voted ballot papers or some even showed their ballot papers to representatives of candidates at the polling stations.”

Transparency suggested decriminalisation of acceptance of offers to increase people’s willingness to come forward and report the practice, while calling on the elections commission and other authorities to create an interagency task force to tackle the problem and prosecute those making offers. It also called for greater voter education, particularly surrounding vote buying and the practice of assisted voting.

Elections commission

The Transparency report details some concerns about the capacity of the elections commission, in particular the relationship between the commission members and the technical staff.

At the same time, “No major political party or key stakeholder questioned the independence or impartiality of the EC as an institution. No such allegation was also made against any Commission members with regard to any election.”

“A few interlocutors, however, questioned the impartiality of some of the members of the EC and some staff, and cited instances. Several interlocutors also expressed concern there existed such allegations, especially made by the staff, against some members.”

“There could be challenges to the EC to act impartially and independently in a highly polarised political environment, as members are likely subjected to external pressures. This could be aggravated by the fact that a simple majority of those present and voting in a parliamentary sitting could remove a member of the EC. While some interlocutors believed there was a possibility of removal of some members in the run up to the elections, the fact that no political party has a majority in the People’s Majlis means that removal requires cross-party cooperation, which might not be forthcoming.”

Given the charged nature of the election, training and recruitment of non-partisan polling staff was emerging as a challenge, Transparency noted.

“Another common concern by several of the interlocutors we met was that some polling workers acted in partisan manner. Transparency Maldives’ own observation, however, found polling workers were largely unbiased in the last Local Council, Parliamentary and the Presidential Elections.

“Nonetheless, with the current levels of political polarisation and shortcomings of the legal framework that allows politicisation of civil servants, the EC will find it extremely challenging to recruit nonpartisan polling staff for the upcoming elections,” Transparency stated.

Despite the many challenges outlined in the report, Transparency noted that the success and credibility of past elections – including by-elections held subsequent to the events of February 7, 2012 – gave cause for hope.

“Maldivians have in the past shown they do respect the outcomes of free, fair and inclusive elections. The upcoming elections therefore give hope. Yet to convert hope into reality requires realisation of the tri-values of freedom, fairness, and inclusiveness for the upcoming elections.

“Assuring freedom for the upcoming elections requires sustaining an electoral environment for voters to freely choose a president without fear, intimidation, and undue influence, but through the opportunities to fully exercise freedom of expression, association and assembly.

“Fairness at a minimum requires a level playing field. Thus, the existing culture of misuse of public resources by the incumbency to their electoral advantage must stop.

“Inclusiveness requires ensuring an electoral context for all to participate in elections, and ensuring that no potential presidential candidate is prevented from contesting the Presidential Elections through any questionable processes.”

Read the 2013 pre-elections assessment


Transparency Maldives announces extensive election monitoring program

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

The Elections Commission (EC) announced this week that presidential elections would be held on September 7, with any run-off election to be held later the same month if required.

Transparency conducted domestic election monitoring during the 2008-2011 cycle of elections, including the country’s first multi-party presidential, parliamentary and local council elections. The results of these elections were widely accepted both locally and internationally – a notable outcome given the high temperature of the country’s politics.

“However, the current political polarisation and the tense, sometimes violent, political environment have strained and continue to further threaten the democratic gains of the previous election processes,” Transparency Maldives warned.

“The next round of elections is currently headed to unfold against this polarised background that appears to deteriorate in terms of political and economic problems,” it added.

In addition to nationwide election monitoring, Transparency Maldives will deploy observers to monitor the entire campaign period, as well as conduct a pre-election technical assessment that includes a focus on voter education.

“Educating voters is a crucial component of a credible election. Voter education is important to instil the values of civic responsibilities and prevent electoral violations such as vote buying and patronage, and change the attitudes of the general public to encourage wider public participation in increasing the integrity of the electoral system,” Transparency said.

The organisation will also run an online complaints mechanism, and perform media monitoring of the country’s heavily polarised fourth pillar.

Behind the “buy-elections”

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.

“The people of this island will vote for money, they don’t have any principles,” confided a 21 year-old islander at the time. “The problem is that people want to force you to vote for who they support. Everyone should have the right to vote for whoever they want. Arguments within families have gone to the point that people are losing face.”

All sides were guilty of handing out cash, he said, in the guise of extending assistance for medical care: “Some people even use the money for drugs.”

In another instance, Minivan News observed a group of youths openly warning an elderly man in a cafe that they would cut of his cigarette supply unless he voted as they wished.

Other practices are more subtle – youth clubs or island NGOs may receive sizeable donations of cash or equipment in exchange for leaders influencing their members to vote in a certain manner.

During voting day on Kaashidoo, Minivan News observed that both candidates had set up exit poll booths under wide parasols, and were crossing off people who had voted.

Many islanders Minivan News spoke to at the time were open about the assistance they had received, justifying it on the grounds that the campaign period was the only time they would ever see their elected representative.


Don’t follow our example, Pakistani civil society warns Maldives

Civil society organisations in Pakistan have expressed alarm over the political crisis in the Maldives, urging the country not to make the same mistakes as Pakistan and calling for the Maldives’ suspension from SAARC until democracy is restored.

Civil society activists from organisations including the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research, the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, Sindh Development Forum, former Supreme Court judge Nasir Aslam Zahid and human rights activist Iqbal Haider addressed the Maldives’ situation at a joint press conference on Saturday.

“At least two countries in South Asia – Pakistan and Bangladesh – that have faced martial laws and coups in the past know very well how people suffer when democracy is brought down,” the civil society representatives said, according to newspaper Pakistan Today.

“We believe that democracy and governance are two different matters and the failure of governance should not be equated with the failure of democracy. An elected regime is brought in by the efforts and votes of the people through the institution of elections and the exit of an elected government should also follow the same procedure.

“There is no way use of force or coercion should be allowed to overthrow a democratically elected government. We also believe that if South Asia is to progress as a region, it will have to adopt democracy as a system of governance,” the representatives said.

“We also stress the need for the Pakistani government to take a strong stand with regards to the events in the Maldives. There are a lot of similarities between the Maldives and Pakistan. Like the Maldives, the elected government of Pakistan too came to power after a very long struggle against military rulers that had held power unconstitutionally for a long time,” they said.

The Pakistani civil society representatives warned that the Maldives was now following the same path of decline that had mired Pakistan in political, religious and economic turmoil.

“The growing strength of religious forces in the Maldives seeking to assert their political prowess and their role in the overthrow of the government is also a point where Pakistan could relate to its South Asian neighbour. The elected governments in Pakistan have battled and are still struggling with the same phenomenon.

“South Asia, as a region, has lost resources and valuable time over the quest by powerful military institutions to assert dominance over the state. This has to be discouraged and a culture of promotion of democracy needs to be cultivated,” the representatives stated.

“We also urge the government to call for the activation of the SAARC mechanisms to prevent the undemocratic move in the Maldives. A joint stand from the platform of SAARC needs to be taken to condemn the events in the Maldives. We also urge all South Asian publics to take this matter seriously and support their respective governments in condemning the action.”

Civil society organisations in the Maldives have been noticeably quiet since the controversial events of February 7-8.

Off the record, several civil society figures have said they have avoided making a stand for fear of politicisation.

“I don’t think taking the right stand means we are politicised,” said another, on condition of anonymity.

“To be frank, we’ve really tried to work on these issues but we’ve hit a wall with the media, [particularly broadcast]. We’re just not getting the time and attention we used to [under Nasheed’s government].”

Several NGOs, including Transparency Maldives, the Maldivian Democracy Network, the Maldives NGO Federation and Democracy House sent a letter to new President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan on February 29 – three weeks later – requesting observer status on Dr Waheed’s Committee of National Inquiry (CNI) into the circumstances surrounding the change of government.

The NGOs subsequently met with Dr Waheed and the CNI in an attempt to ensure the composition was acceptable to all political parties, as Nasheed’s MDP has currently boycotted the inquiry claiming it consists of key Gayoom loyalists.

The NGOs sent a second letter on March 15. Minivan News understands that they are still awaiting a reply.

“The onus is on the President to change [the composition], as the CNI has said it cannot,” said an NGO representative.


Government assures Transparency Maldives of willingness to accept international assistance in inquiry

President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan has assured Transparency Maldives of his willingness to include international groups in the inquiry into the events surrounding his accession to the presidency.

In a meeting with the local NGO, President Waheed and Attorney General Azima Shukoor also welcomed requests for increased transparency in the workings of the Committee of National Inquiry (CNI) which is charged with looking into the legality and legitimacy of the transfer of presidential power.

Transparency Maldives Project Director Aiman Rasheed emerged from the meeting confident that Dr Waheed would respect the importance of transparency and accountability in the inquiry process.

Rasheed told Minivan News that Dr Waheed saw an independent and transparent process as the way forward, and recognised that an enquiry which did not have the support of the people would only further political discontent.

The inclusion of international experts in any such inquiry has been urged by numerous international actors as well as the party of  former President Nasheed. The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Committee (CMAG), in a statement released after its own inconclusive enquiry into recent events, had strongly recommended an international element to any future investigation, “as mutually agreed to by political parties in Maldives.”

The largest party in the People’s Majlis, Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), yesterday criticised the CNI for “dragging its feet” on the issue, in what it said was “a clear violation” of the wishes of the international community.

“The MDP hopes that the international community will immediately call on the Dr Waheed regime and the CNI to commit to significant international assistance in the investigation,” the party said in a statement.

MDP said it had received reports of that members of the police force willing to talk to the CNI were facing intimidation. MDP International Affairs Spokesperson Hamid Abdul Ghafoor said he believed that such reports only increased the need for international experts, including witness protection specialists, to help bring investigations to a successful conclusion. Ghafoor has previously drawn unfavourable comparisons between this investigation and the 2003 Maafushi jail enquiry whose independence was questioned and whose outcome was censored.

The CNI currently consists of three members: Ismail Shafeeu, former minister of defence and national security during President Maumoon Abdul Gayyoom’s administration; Dr Ali Fawaz Shareef, Deputy Vice Chancellor at Maldives National University; and Dr Ibrahim Yasir, former Director General of Health Services.

One member of the commission has already been reappointed. Dr Ali Fawaz Shareef replaced Ahmed Mujuthaba, who said his position as the convener of the all-party consultative meetings was a conflict of interest.

Transparency Maldives, which is scheduled to meet the CNI tomorrow with three other NGOs, including the Maldivian Democracy Network, Maldives NGO Federation and Democracy House, has been active in raising awareness of the detrimental impact corruption and opaque governance on society.

The group’s current projects include Parliament Watch, a program that aims to increase public scrutiny of the procedures and processes used in the People’s Majlis, and the CRINIS Project advocating for changes to political party financing transparency. Others include the Right to Information Project, creating demand for right to information for greater transparency and accountability, the Decentralisation Project promoting accountability and increasing citizen engagement in local governments, and Advocacy and Legal Advice Centres Project, helping victims of corruption with the legal systems in place.

It has also produced reports on media, and conducted surveys on corruption perception. In pursuit of its stated goals of justice and democracy it asked the President to consider allowing it observer status on the CNI. It also requested that the CNI’s findings be made public.