In the latest turn of events leading to the turbulent presidential elections in the Maldives, the Supreme Court has trampled on the prospects of democracy by postponing the Saturday 19 October vote. In previous weeks, the supposedly impartial body had already scrapped the second round of elections (just hours before it was to take place) and overturned the results from the primary ballots cast on 7 September. The official excuse for this string of assertive delays is an investigation into electoral fraud. But the lack of evidence produced so far suggests that the cause lies closer political rivalry and corruption in this fragile democracy.
Disturbingly, the Supreme Court has repeatedly disdained providing the Maldivian people with a transparent account of its actions or grounds. Instead, it has called on the police to enforce its decisions and physically prevented the independent Maldivian Election Committee from doing its work. EU representative Catherine Ashton expressed dismay at the court’s injunctions in unusually sharp words and UK Foreign Secretary William Hague threatened that any further delays would be treated as a violation of democracy and “undermine the stability and international reputation of the Maldives.”
Electoral officials have rescheduled the vote for 9 November, but trust in the democratic institutions of the Maldives has by now worn thin. An additional concern is that the constitution requires a president to be elected by 11 November. So if the election leads to a run-off, it is unclear who will head the government in the interim. Today, the Opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed enjoys a comfortable lead in the polls, with 45% of the vote in the annulled first round – but he would require a 50% majority to win outright. His two most likely rivals are Abdulla Yameen, an economist, and Gasim Ibrahim, a hotel tycoon. The interim president, Mohamed Waheed, has retired from the presidential race following a dismal show in September.
But the true contester to the throne may not figure in the list of electoral candidates at all. Some fear that the orchestrator of the current electoral mayhem is none other than Maumoon Gayoom, the dictator who ran the country for twenty years before being beaten by Nasheed in the country’s first democratic elections. Gayoom retains considerable influence over the Maldives – especially among the police and the judiciary. Last year, Nasheed resigned from office, later claiming to have been ousted in a coup which involved the old dictator.
The ruling of the Supreme Court sounds an alarming reminder of the growing pains endemic to this young democracy. Ignoring the constitution and the voice of the Maldivian people will only intensify tensions further. Already tourism sector workers, leaning on the keystone of the economy, have gone on strike and masked assailants have set the offices of an opposition-friendly news studio ablaze. Unless new elections are held as promised on 11 November and the voices of Maldivian voters are heard, they risk losing hope in democracy and resorting to other means of expression.