Will the Maldives pull itself together to hold a free and fair presidential election?

Mohamed Nasheed

The Maldives was supposed to hold an election last Saturday — a presidential runoff that may have resulted in the return of Mohamed Nasheed (pictured above) to power. maldives

Instead, the runoff was cancelled by the country’s supreme court over allegations of fraud in the first round, setting off protests and scrambles in the island nation of around 340,000 people in the Indian Ocean just southwest of India.  Although the electoral commission ultimately backed down from its initial plan to proceed with the September 28 runoff notwithstanding the court order, it leaves the developing country’s nascent democratic institutions in limbo pending a planned November 11 inauguration for a yet-to-be-determined president.

It’s been a rough go for Maldivian democracy in the five short years since its first free and open presidential election — an election that Nasheed won before he was removed from power in February 2012 by opponents armed by the country’s police and armed forces.  Protests against Nasheed’s administration began in 2011 over the country’s poor economy due to rising prices for an island nation that imports much of its food and energy — GDP growth dropped from around 7% in 2010 and 2011 to just 3.4% last year.

Nasheed, who leads the Maldivian Democratic Party, nearly won the first round with 45.45% of the vote.  His opponent in the runoff is Abdulla Yameen, the candidate of the Progressive Party of Maldives, and who narrowly defeated the third-place candidate Gasin Ibrahim, a wealthy businessman in the tourism and media industries who leads the Jumhoory Party — Yameen took 25.35% to just 24.07% for Ibrahim.  Both Yameen and Ibrahim have ties to Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled the Maldives between 1978 and 2008, when he lost the country’s first democratic election to Nasheed.

But as Sudha Ramachandran writes for The Diplomat, Nasheed’s administration faced difficulties from the outset:

With Gayoom-era appointees and cronies firmly entrenched in the judiciary, bureaucracy, police and military, the Maldives’ nascent democracy was stymied. Meanwhile, anti-democratic forces joined hands with religious conservatives and accused Nasheed of working with Jews and Christians and undermining Islam. Almost from his first day, Nasheed was at loggerheads with the judiciary. Officials in various state institutions ignored the Executive in making decisions, undermining Nasheed’s authority. Massive demonstrations against the president and the MDP were organized, plunging the archipelago in unrest and instability.

Both challengers to Nasheed in the current race have ties to Gayoom, whose legacy looms over the country today — Yameen is Gayoom’s half-brother and Ibrahim served as finance minister and central bank president in the final three years of the Gayoom regime.

Generally, Nasheed opposes the delay in the runoff as a violation of the Maldivian constitution amid fears that Gayoom loyalists are behind the delay, and he Nasheed called for peaceful protests on Saturday.  Gayoom himself has already called for the first-round results to be annulled.

Although the supreme court’s ruling relates to charges from Ibrahim about fraud in the first round (though international observers found little to complain about), Ibrahim supports Yameen.  So does the current president, Mohammed Waheed, who finished in last place with just over 5% in the race, and who served as Nasheed’s vice president until Nasheed was ousted from office.

But it’s not clear where the runoff stands because the Maldivian supreme court didn’t bother setting a new date for the election, leading Nasheed and his supporters to believe that the court might never set a date for a runoff.  In any event, it’s not clear what the delay means for Maldivian law or for Maldivian democracy.  If the runoff is never held, or if the first-round results are cancelled, the Maldives will face another constitutional crisis.  Even if a delayed vote is ultimately held between now and November, a Yameen victory would be tainted by allegations of rigging and bias from the country’s generally pro-Gayoom judiciary.

India, which once buoyed Gayoom’s authoritarian regime (and protected him from a 1988 coup attempt), gradually soured on Gayoom, generally supported Nasheed’s administration and the country’s turn to democracy, denounced the election delay and called for a level playing field for all of the candidates. 

Above all, the delay threatens to harm the tourism industry, which is the country’s largest:

A 5,000-member union of tourism workers in the Maldives is threatening a prolonged strike if scheduled presidential elections are not held on Saturday. The strike… has the backing of former president and current front-running candidate Mohamed Nasheed… as well as an organization representing resort owners in the Maldives.

While the threat of the strike, which would involve hotel staff as well as airport workers, may have travelers concerned about upcoming or planned trips to the Indian Ocean islands, it’s not the first time that such calls have been made. Because tourism accounts for at least 28% of the country’s GDP, it’s a powerful tool when used to shape public debate in the country—not to mention in the international media.

Nasheed might be most recognized outside the Maldives for his advocacy of global solutions to combat climate change in light of the fact that global warming and rising sea levels could plunge his country (which sits just seven feet above sea level) under the ocean surface one day — he made a splash in 2009 by hosting an underwater cabinet meeting, and he made an impassioned plea at the 2009 summit over climate change in Copenhagen, though climate change didn’t figure prominently in this year’s election campaign, and even if Nasheed wins, there’s little hope that the tiny nation has the resources or the capacity to alter its environmental predicament, despite Nasheed’s hope to make the country carbon-neutral by 2020:

Nasheed’s pledge of $1bn in welfare payments in the next five years, plus the quarter of GDP spent on the diesel that powers the nation, would give little room for spending on climate adaptation without foreign aid in an already heavily indebted nation. “The cost of oil is bleeding them dry,” says Mike Mason, the British engineer who developed the stalled carbon neutral plan. He adds that governance issues have exacerbated the problem.

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