22 September 2018
NEVER let anyone accuse President Abdulla Yameen of leaving things to chance. He was first elected to run the Maldives in 2013 by a wafer-thin margin—just 6,000 votes. The story of his time at the head of this atoll nation of 400,000 people spread over a vast expanse of the Indian Ocean has been one of determined entrenchment. It is a story about the path towards full-blown dictatorship.
During his time in power, Mr Yameen has hounded not only the opposition but also rivals within his own coalition. He has closed Parliament. He has stamped on the last shreds of a free press. And he has courted Saudi Arabia and China, who have his back.
In his boldest act, in February, Mr Yameen suspended much of the constitution and declared a state of emergency in order to annul a Supreme Court ruling that quashed the convictions of nine opposition members. Among them was the Maldives’ first democratically elected leader, Mohamed Nasheed, who fled into exile following an obscure coup just before Mr Yameen’s rise to power.
If you are a dictator, why not flaunt it and simply abolish elections? That is not Mr Yameen’s style: a presidential election takes place on September 23rd. Perhaps he worries about what remains of the Maldives’ standing in the West, which threatens sanctions over human-rights abuses. More probably he thinks an election is less a threat to his authority than a means to beef it up. More political and financial resources flow to a winner, while defeat divides and weakens the opposition. Authoritarian leaders can find elections useful. If they hold elections without losing, as Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas put it in “How to Rig an Election”, they can have their cake and eat it. As more elections are being held around the world, more are being rigged.
As for Mr Yameen’s rigging, where to begin? Given the enforced absence of Mr Nasheed, Mr Yameen knew that the opposition would end up with a less charismatic candidate. Ibrahim “Ibu” Mohamed Solih, solid and honest, is never going to set the house on fire. Government-backed thugs intimidate opposition members. Vote-buying is blatant. Meanwhile, the opening of projects that redound to the president’s credit has been timed to coincide with the campaign. They include a new China-backed bridge linking the capital, Malé, to the international airport. Mr Yameen is only now unveiling social-housing projects completed ages ago. Applicants for flats are being asked pointedly what they think of the government.
Should all that not be enough, the Elections Commission is in the hands of one of Mr Yameen’s right-hand men. Its members cheer at Yameen rallies. This week it announced that observers will not be allowed to monitor vote-tallying, as they were in previous elections. Foreign reporters must jump through many hoops to qualify for a visa, including presenting a police certificate of good character. “Punitive measures” are promised for those who sneak in as holidaymakers.
For all that, Mr Yameen has a problem: you still have to be vaguely popular to win even a rigged election. Bumping 5% of the vote your way is one thing; bumping four times that is quite another. Opposition polling puts Mr Yameen’s support at just 30%. His efforts, in other words, are not guaranteed to succeed. Just ask Najib Razak, Malaysia’s former prime minister. Before the election in May, Mr Najib’s party, which had ruled since independence, intimidated the opposition, bought votes and massively gerrymandered constituencies. Yet, in a huge upset, Mr Najib still lost.
The Maldives and Malaysia are far from the only countries that rig elections in Asia—indeed more rig them than not. Even Singapore, where vote-counts are squeaky clean, hounds critics and threatens to withhold upgrades to public housing in districts that vote for the opposition. But are all cases as bad as each other? Patently not. One test is to ask how peaceably a former ruler is likely to sleep should he ever fall from power.
Should his People’s Action Party (PAP) ever lose its grip, Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong would probably be able to cycle around Singapore untroubled. (Though why, you wonder, does the PAP hold on so tenaciously?) Mr Yameen, by contrast, has as much to fear as Mr Najib. Both men have been accused of taking money from murky sources. Questions hang over both about human rights. Mr Najib now faces charges, among them of money-laundering. The courts as well as the former opposition would surely come after Mr Yameen. For leaders like them, rigging elections is not just a matter of staying in power. It’s about staying out of prison.