Culture of Election Rigging: Problems with the presidential elections of the Maldives

For the first time, an Elections Commission relatively free from the direct influence of the Executive, has been formed in the Maldives, under the constitution amended and ratified on 7 August 2008. The challenges facing the new Elections Commission are immense: gaining public confidence and trust; oversee an election that could be marred in violence and dispute; and ensure that this year’s presidential election – the first multi-party election in the Maldives – is the country’s first free and fair election. As the Elections Commission works with a tentative date of 4 October as the election date, Maverick looks at the culture of vote rigging in the Maldives, and reveals how presidential elections in the country were systematically rigged. This article was published in Maverick 4.35 (July 2003), in another election year, five years ago.


Problems with the presidential elections of the Maldives

Maverick 4.35, July 2003

Ilyas Ibrahim, President Gayoom’s brother-in-law and then Minister of Atolls Administration, made an unsuccessful attempt to come to power in 1993.

Ilyas was sent diplomatically to Singapore and then he was tried in court in absentia on various charges including the use of black magic to come to power. Several people who had close links with Ilyas, even some NSS officers, were stripped of their positions. Nevertheless, Ilyas received 18 votes when the parliament elected a candidate for the presidential election of 1993. He is said to have bribed some of the MPs. Gayoom won more votes by a narrow margin but the votes Ilyas received was a shock, especially as by then Ilyas’ power had been reduced after his plot had been uncovered.

At the time the parliament used to elect a single candidate to run in the presidential election. The MPs elected the candidate in a secret election and thereafter the candidate will be put in a yes or no public referendum. There was no way of knowing who will be elected by the parliament until the results of all votes by MPs are counted. Hence, the 18 votes Ilyas received was a real shock. President Gayoom and his associates realized how vulnerable this system was and how it could be exploited against them.

Maldives had its first constitution on 22 December 1932. Since then the country was ruled as a constitutional monarchy. A republic was established on 1 January 1953 but it was short-lived and monarchy was restored on 21 August 1953. The constitution was revised on 7 March 1954. A second republic was proclaimed on 11 November 1968. Maumoon Abdul Gayoom became the second president of the second republic on 11 November 1978. In his first year in office, the parliament passed a bill to amend the constitution. President Gayoom formed a People’s Special Majlis on 29 November 1980 and assigned it the task of amending the constitution. It took more than 15 years for the People’s Special Majlis to complete the task. When the new constitution was completed on 6 November 1997 it received the assent of the president on 27 November 1997 and came into force on 1 January 1998.

In addition to the excessive powers granted to the President under the new constitution, it also introduced multi-candidate presidential elections. According to the new constitution people could contest to be candidates in the election held in the parliament. This way the regime will know in advance if anybody has the intention of becoming the president. The candidate who receives most votes from the ballot in the parliament will run as the presidential candidate. As in previous years, the public will have only one candidate to vote in the referendum.

The first presidential election after the new constitution came into force was held in 1998. According to the constitution any Maldivian could nominate himself as a presidential candidate if he meets the following criteria
– a Muslim of Sunni following
– a citizen of the Maldives whose parents and grandparents are Maldivian citizens
– a male who has attained 35 years of age
– a person of sound mind and capable of carrying out the duties and responsibilities of a President
– must not have been convicted of an offence for which a Hadd has to be applied according to Islam or of criminal breach of trust and brought into disrepute
– should not be married to a national of a foreign country.

Ten days were given in 1998 presidential elections for candidates to submit the nomination papers. Five candidates filed the nomination papers. Commissioner of Elections sent their names to the Speaker of the parliament. A special meeting of the Parliament was held on 24 September 1998 to nominate a candidate to be submitted to the general public referendum. Maumoon Abdul Gayoom received the vote of all MPs who were present at the meeting. The referendum was held on 16 October 1998.

This election was the first presidential election in which foreign observers were brought to observe the election process. The group of observers coming from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka were named as The Observer Group of Eminent Persons (OGEP). They observed the election process in some islands and Male’. Their report concluded that the election was free and fair and involved no fraud. In the election Gayoom received more than 90 percent of the vote.

The president of the Maldives enjoys extensive powers. He appoints the Speaker of the Parliament, the Chief Judge, the justice minister and judges of courts. The Judiciary is completely under the control of the Executive, the courts coming under the justice ministry. When the people of the country have only one candidate to vote for as the President, it is important to see whether the legislature that is electing that candidate for the referendum, is truly representative of the people.

The parliament in the Maldives comprises of 50 members. There are two members representing each atoll of the Maldives, (there are 20 atolls) and two representing the capital island Male’. In addition, there are 8 members appointed by the President.

The members of the parliament include cabinet ministers and senior officials of the government. They win the seats using excessive powers and election fraud. It is evident that there is a conflict of interest between their roles as MPs and government officials. There is no opposition in the parliament. There are no political parties.

In countries such as UK, the government is formed from the parliament, by the party that wins the general elections. The leader of the party becomes the Head of the Government or the Prime Minister. Hence, the Head of the Government is representative of the people. The parliament consists of an opposition and there are checks and balances.

In the Maldives the parliament is nothing more than a rubber stamp of the Executive or the leading regime. In creating constituencies, the population has been ignored in the electoral system and only the geographical aspects have been considered. For an example, the people of Vaavu Atoll also elect two MPs, while there are two seats for Addu Atoll as well. Vaavu Atoll has a very small population of around 1,000, while even the island of Hithadhoo in Addu Atoll has more people than Vaavu Atoll. At the time of 1999 General Elections there were 13,827 people who were eligible to vote in Addu Atoll while there were only 967 eligible voters in Vaavu Atoll.

Interestingly, before the presidential elections of 1998, Ari Atoll was split into two atolls. The two parts were named as North Ari Atoll and South Ari Atoll. Elections were held to elect MPs for only one part of the Ari Atoll while the MPs who were elected in the parliamentary elections of 1994 by the people of the Ari Atoll remained as representatives of the other part. If a constituency is divided to form two new constituencies, it is rational to hold elections in both constituencies. However, the regime wanted to keep the previous MPs. The real reason for splitting Ari Atoll and bringing two new MPs to the parliament was to increase President Gayyoom’s chances of being elected as the presidential candidate in the election of 1998. After what happened in 1993 the links between the Executive and the Legislature had to be strengthened further.

In fact Gayyoom’s narrow win in 1993 was aided by another questionable factor; the 8 MPs appointed by the President. These eight members enjoy equal rights in the parliament as the MPs who are elected by the people. They could also vote in the secret ballot held in the parliament to pick a presidential candidate. As Gayyoom appoints only very trusted people as the 8 MPs, it is clear that they will vote for him. The 8 MPs could also vote for or against bills in the parliament. This is a clear example of how the Executive is abusing the Legislature.

It is pathetic that the 8 MPs appointed by the President have equal powers as the MPs who are supposedly elected by the people. The 8 MPs play a crucial role to elect the ruling President as the next presidential candidate. The elections in the parliament are overseen by the Speaker, who is also appointed by the President. Presently the Speaker is Gayoom’s brother Abdulla Hameed.

After the puppet show in the parliament is over the people gets to say yes or no to the presidential candidate. The supporters of the regime could say there is no flaw in the system because the candidate will be elected as President only if the candidate gets majority votes as affirmative. However, this system is devoid of any real pluralism. Even though people could run as presidential candidates for the election in the parliament, there is no chance for the candidates to offer their agendas to the public.

In the Maldives the presidential term is five years and the term for the parliament is also five years. The terms for a President are not limited and a lucky person could even rule for life if elected term after term. The parliamentary election in Maldives comes a year after the Presidential election and a four-year-old parliament elects the presidential candidate for the next presidential election. During those four years the people have few chances to interact with their elected representatives. Some of the MPs are senior government officials who won seats through power abuse and fraud and seldom do they meet with the people in their constituencies and listen to their problems. So it is questionable whether the parliament’s vote for a presidential candidate is truly representing the will of the people.

So how comes the candidate gets such a large majority in the public referendum? Isn’t the candidate elected by the people in the final process, and isn’t that what democracy is all about? It is through election rigging, fraud, threats and fear that this majority is achieved in the Maldives in what is known as a very unique democracy.

In islands the island chiefs and atolls chiefs exercise their powers to keep the opposition under control, sometimes detaining critics. They abuse their powers and commit fraud in the election through a mixture of fooling some of the less politically conscious people and intimidation of others. Even in resorts the wealthy resort owners who back the regime instruct their employees to vote for the presidential candidate. In 1998 when the number of votes for the candidate was too low from a particular resort, an owner went to a fit of rage.

My Vote Not for Sale

Image from MaldivesVotes.com

President Gayyoom congratulated former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein for his win in the last election with an amazing majority. International media and some of the world leaders were incredulous about the election results and had difficulty in understanding how Saddam could have secured such a victory. But for the people of the Maldives the election results in Iraq had a familiar tone. During the past 24 years President Gayyoom has won 5 elections, each one with a majority of more than 90% of the votes.

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