Democracy In Maldives Comes Under A Cloud

When Maldives went through the motions of a Presidential election on September 23, it had looked like a critical moment for the future of democracy in the Indian Ocean archipelago. A day after the election, as the voting trends started pouring in from the counting centers, it was manifest that the people had voted for change. The incumbent President Abdulla Yameen was trailing way behind. The lead taken by the Opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohammad Solih was so substantial that the incumbent President was willing to concede defeat.  “The people of Maldives have decided what they want.”—President Yameen said in a statement—“I have accepted the results.”

As the final tally confirmed the voting trends, Maldives appeared headed for a restoration of democratic institutions. That was good news. Mr. Ibrahim Mohammad Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party had polled 58 per cent of the votes, and was ahead of President Abdulla Yameen of the Progressive Party of Maldives by about 16 per cent.The Transparency Maldives, a civil society watchdog organisation, ruled that despite some initial instances of violence, the elections had been conducted in a generally free andfair manner. The outcome of the vote was thus seen as good news for the fledgling democracy in Maldives. And, several countries—including the European Union, India and the United States—welcomed the results.

The post-election scene had given rise to hopes that the Maldives’ democratic institutions, which had come under severe strain following the imposition of the emergency earlier this year, may now be nursed back to health. The arbitrary exercise of powers under the emergency provisions had given short shrift to institutions of representative governance. Some of the opposition politicians had ended up in jail—while some others, including former President Nasheed, the country’s first democratically elected President, were in exile. All these were likely to change under a new presidency.

But then, days after having conceded that he had lost the vote, President Yameen apparently decided to change his mind. Earlier this week, he put the electoral outcome into question by appealing to the Supreme Court to reconsider the results. He claimed that he had received a lot of complaints from his supporters suggesting that the elections had not been conducted in a free and fair manner.  Normally, that was a bit unusual as it was not often that the Opposition, several of whose leaders were in jail, could rig an election under the watch of a powerful President. However,the Supreme Court has since agreed to hear the President’s plea and give its findings.

Whatever the merits of the President’s case, it looked like the discourse surrounding the recent election is getting murkier by the day. A day after he had appealed to the Supreme Court, the President sought a confrontation with the country’s Election Commission, accusing its members of having accepted bribes from the Opposition leaders in order to rig the vote. Following the cue, the President’s supporters too held protest rallies outside the houses of the election commission members. Sensing danger, four of the five Election Commission members have since left the country. Mr. Ahmed Shareef, the lone Election Commission member who had decided to stay back, said that his colleagues had been faced with threatening crowds of demonstrators surrounding their homes.

President Yameen’s own five-year term gets over on November 17. The Supreme Court has promised to begin hearing his plea seeking to nullify the September 23 election this Sunday. That makes it look like next few weeks will determine the future course of democracy in this Indian Ocean country. As the Maldivian Supreme Court decides the future course of action, all friends of Maldives would like to think that it would end up strengthening the still fragile institutions of democracy in that country.

Script:  M. K. Tikku, Political Commentator