A spate of scheduling, cancelling and annulling of elections 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, when the first presidential election was held and then declared invalid, faithfully cast votes have been left hanging in limbo.
The latest attempt to conduct a presidential election ran into the familiar muddle of objections and obstruction from the Maldives’ Supreme Court determined to deny the frontrunner, Mohamed Nasheed, a chance to return to power after he was overthrown in a coup d’etat in 2012.
The fact that Nasheed is consistently securing over 45% of the popular vote despite a hostile security and judicial establishment shows that the Maldivian people are believers in moderation.
The president who took power after the coup, Mohammed Waheed, was rejected by the electorate in September. His paltry tally proved that the 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 court — packed with Gayoom’s supplicants — to cancel the second round run-off in late September on grounds of irregularities in voting was a ruse to block Nasheed from making a comeback. The total number of eligible voters in the Maldives is just 2,40,000. Fraudulent activity is easy to detect when the scale of the electoral process is so minuscule. International observers declared the election held in September to be largely free and fair, and yet the court decided, in a premeditated manner, to find fault with the process.
India’s Election Commission has been advising its counterpart in the Maldives since March 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.
Thanks to highly credible Indian technical aid, no aspersions can be cast on 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 Maldives have been coming out in such large numbers to vote. The turnout in the first round of the presidential election in November has been a phenomenal 88%.
Voter fatigue is natural when elections are rigged. So far, the Maldivian people have not given up hope that their votes will eventually count and bring Nasheed back to office. But should the hurdles continue, the option of mass agitation on the streets may be the only outlet for his followers who are feeling cheated.
The Maldives should have had a new president in office as of November 11 as per constitutional rules. The cynical manner in which the courts and the security forces have toyed with the constitution and popular will bodes ill for the future of the country.
Even if Nasheed finally manages to emerge victorious in a second round of voting, the instability and uncertainty introduced by the clique around Gayoom will haunt the former’s second term in office.
India, whose national security is predicated on democratic forces triumphing in the Maldives, must use bilateral as well as multilateral levers, such as the Commonwealth, to pressure and incentivise stakeholders in this troubled archipelago to respect their people’s preferences.
Sreeram Chaulia is dean, Jindal School of International Affairs
The views expressed by the author are personal