Maldivians fight for votes, courts void them.
The Supreme Court of the Maldives has overturned the first round of a tense presidential election following allegations of fraud. The undertakings of this supposedly neutral institution are raising concern among the international community and the Maldivian opposition. On September 24, it “indefinitely postponed” the election’s second-round runoff, just days before it was to take place. Now, it has vetoed the primary ballots in which the Maldivian people took part with an 88% turnout. “These are pivotal elections for the Maldives,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. “The people of the Maldives should have the opportunity, without undue delay, to exercise their vote.”
Westerners rarely see more of the Maldives than the luxurious holiday resorts lining its emerald green lagoons. But what happens beyond these peaceful havens could resonate across continents. The archipelago is at the heart of Asia’s maritime trade routes and is perched on the frontier of the Islamic world. It offers an instructive peephole into currents in the developing world. Maldivians marched against their autocratic rulers years before the Arab Spring; they built a world class tourism sector from scratch in just decades; they are among the most vocal advocates for action to combat climate change; and they are devout Muslims, with a traditionally moderate stance and a taste for human rights reforms. Against the regional background of religious fundamentalism, the Maldives offered a beacon of hope that peace and prosperity might favor moderation and democracy. Sadly, recent events demand a re-examination of these hopes.
This is not the first time that the rights of the Maldivian people have been flouted. The tropical island chain has suffered a succession of lamentable leaders. Since getting rid of their colonial overlords, independence for the Maldivian people meant suffering first a ten-year despot, then a thirty-year despot. In 2008, they took to the streets and voted in Mohamed Nasheed as their first democratically mandated leader. But he resigned last year, claiming that he was forced out of office at gun-point in a ploy involving his vice-president, Mohammed Waheed, and the dictator which he dethroned, Maumoon Gayoom.
The hope among many Maldivians had been that new elections would defuse these tensions and put the country back on track to democracy. But days after the first round gave Nasheed a comfortable lead with 45% of the vote, the Supreme Court launched investigations into alleged electoral fraud. These follow allegations of irregularities by the Jumhooree Party, whose presidential candidate, Gasim Ibrahim, came a narrow third in the polls. The party denounced inaccuracies in the voter registry, the use of fake identity cards and an opaque vote counting process. But Husnu Suood, the legal representative of the Maldives’ Election Commission, says that the Jumhooree party has been provided with the voters list, and has yet to substantiate their alleged irregularities. The case seems all the more tenuous given the orderly and inclusive nature of the first round of voting which was commended by both internal and outside observers for its fairness. “Campaigning was peaceful and the elections were well run,” said Catherine Ashton on behalf of the European Union. Three of the seven Supreme Court judges making the ruling dismissed the allegations as baseless, and even interim-President Waheed, who was crushed in the polls, initially accepted the results and assured the Maldivian people of a smooth transition of power. “There are specific provisions in the Election Act for annulling an election,” explains Suood, “but, in this case, none of these conditions have been fulfilled.”
Mariyam Imad, Malé