By Sreeram Chaulia
Nov 13, 2013
The decision of the Maldives Supreme Court to cancel the second round run-off on grounds of alleged poll irregularities was an obvious ruse to block Mohamed Nasheed from making a comeback
The spate of scheduling, cancelling and annulling elections and election results over the last three months in the Maldives has eroded whatever little legitimacy was left in its public institutions. Instead of a return to democracy that should have happened in September 2013, when the first of many ill-fated presidential elections was held and then declared invalid, we have a charade of votes being faithfully cast and thrown into the dustbin or waiting room.
The latest attempt to conduct a presidential election ran into the familiar muddle of objections and obstruction from Maldives’ politicised and biased Supreme Court and from political parties determined to deny the front runner, Mohamed Nasheed, a chance to return to power after he was overthrown in a coup d’etat in 2012.
Even though Nasheed — the most liberal, secular and popular politician of the Maldives — did not win an absolute majority of votes in the first round of the aborted polls held in September and again in November, the fact that he is consistently securing over 45 per cent of the popular vote, despite a hostile security and judicial establishment, shows that the people of the country are firm believers in moderation and democracy.
No Democratic Culture
The democratic culture, often missing in countries making the transition from long-lasting authoritarian rule, is absent in the formal institutions of power in the Maldives but is thriving in Maldivian society.
Mohammed Waheed, the President who took power after the coup against Mr. Nasheed, was resoundingly rejected by the electorate in the ill-fated election held in September. His paltry tally of five per cent of votes proved that the 2102 coup, carried out by the remnants of Maldives’ ancient regime loyal to the former strongman, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, lacked popular approval.
The decision of the Supreme Court, which is packed with Mr. Gayoom’s supplicants, to cancel the second round run-off in late September on grounds of alleged irregularities in voting was an obvious ruse to block Mr. Nasheed from making a comeback and bringing the coup-plotters to justice.
The judicial excuse for repeatedly nullifying or delaying elections is that impersonators and unregistered voters are casting ballots and skewing the results. The Maldives is the smallest country in the whole of Asia in terms of land area. The total number of eligible voters is just 2, 40,000. Fraudulent activity is easy to detect and weed out when the scale of the electoral process is so minuscule. International observers declared the September election to be largely free and fair, and yet the Supreme Court decided in a premeditated manner to find fault with the process.
India’s Election Commission, which is renowned the world over for its technical competence and success in conducting elections of mind-boggling proportions involving hundreds of millions of voters, has been advising its counterpart in the Maldives since March this year on methodologies to improve voter confidence and minimise election-related complaints. The Maldives Election Commission’s “strategic plan” for the smooth implementation of its mandate of holding presidential and local council elections has a distinct Indian imprint.
Because the entire election machinery and preparation in the Maldives owed much to highly credible Indian technical aid, there can be no questions about the general soundness of the voting rounds held in September or November.
It is owing to this basic confidence in the electoral method that the people of the Maldives have been coming out in such large numbers to vote. Notwithstanding the strategies of the interim administration and the Supreme Court to spread disillusionment and shoo away voters, the turnout in the first round of the presidential election in November has been a phenomenal 88 per cent.
For Mr. Gayoom and his half-brother, Abdulla Yameen, who is a candidate in the current elections, it is a shock that the voter turnout has grown from 83 per cent in the September election to 88 per cent now. Their tactics of stalling the process by refusing to approve voter lists which are quite transparent have ironically whipped up more sympathy for the victimised Mr. Nasheed.
Voter fatigue is natural when elections or their results are rigged. When popular verdicts are falsified or negated through institutional skulduggery, voters might skip or boycott elections. Thus far, the Maldivian people have not given up the hope that their votes will eventually count — and bring Mr. Nasheed back to the office that he deserves to hold.
But should the hurdles continue to mount on Mr. Nasheed’s legitimate re-election, the option of mass protests and agitation on the streets appears to be the only one for his followers who are feeling cheated. The Maldives should have had a new president in office as of November 11, as per the constitutional rules. The manner in which the courts and the security forces have toyed with the Constitution and the popular will, bodes ill for the future of the country.
A Call to India
Even if Mr. Nasheed finally manages to emerge victorious in a second round of voting, the instability and uncertainty introduced by the clique around Mr. Gayoom via the main formal institutions that control most levers of power will haunt the former’s second term in office. India, which stands behind democratic forces in the Maldives, must use bilateral as well as multilateral forums such as the Commonwealth (of which the Maldives is also a member) to pressure and incentivise stakeholders in the politics of this troubled archipelago to respect their people’s choice.
Sreeram Chaulia is a Professor and Dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs.