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Anger, U-turns and losing the right to vote in the Maldives: A Q&A

There are concerns about voter manipulation, transparency and confusion caused by the changes.



Recent weeks have seen the Maldives government tighten its grip on voting, with people being told where they can vote, how to (re)register and even who can help them to vote if they cannot mark the ballot paper themselves because of a disability.

While there have been some U-turns, there remain concerns about voter manipulation, transparency and the confusion caused by the changes.

Here is a Q and A about what is happening, why and the consequences of voters’ rights being eroded in the Maldives.

What has been happening?

It started when the housing ministry encouraged people from other islands who were living in the capital to register as Malé residents so they could apply for social housing schemes.

While the housing ministry said there would be no obstacles to voting, the Department for National Registration said it would not take any responsibility if people were unable to vote due to a change in address on their national ID cards.

“When we look into why they did it, it’s clear they want information,’ says Malé City Mayor Shifa Mohamed. “Through their social housing scheme, they have information on civil servants, police.”

The Elections Commission announced its decision to keep ballot boxes at only seven resorts, swiftly followed by a U-turn, then announced people with disabilities could only have EC officials as helpers on voting day, swiftly followed by another U-turn.

Fuwad Thowfeeq, who was EC chief during a turbulent presidential election, says it is unacceptable to see the “immature behaviour of the EC.”

“The EC should avoid any activity that might introduce any complications or confusion to the public,” he tells the Maldives Independent. “It should not allow any institutions to change people’s identification, including their national ID card and permanent address, during the election period.

“In the past, the EC guaranteed it. The EC should not remain silent when [state institutions] obtains the consent of people saying their ID card renewal application might lead them to be unable to cast their vote.”

He adds the EC has the power to keep ballot boxes anywhere, including resorts.

“The EC has the constitutional responsibility to communicate with the management of all the resorts and make arrangements to place the ballot boxes in all necessary resorts and also to find a solution for all the employees of resorts which do not have ballot boxes placed.”

Ministries and companies are asking their employees to submit voter re-registration forms to political appointees of the ruling party. Prison staff have been ordered to vote in jails or detention centres.

The published election guidelines say voter lists at polling stations must have photos and IDs of voters, but the EC says this is a publishing mistake.

The ID card renewal service has now been suspended, with a DNR official saying it was to “ensure that no Maldivian loses his or her right to vote in the upcoming election.”

Why is this happening?

The election is on September 23 and President Abdulla Yameen wants a second term in office.

There are 27,837 Maldivians working in resorts, representing around 14 percent of the total workforce, according to the last census. There are 35,155 people working in government offices and independent institutions, while 31,475 work in companies. There are over 6,000 people with disabilities who are registered with the National Social Protection Agency.

The votes of civil servants and resort workers could change the outcome of the election.

“The current commission should have looked at the procedure and principles adopted in the two previous elections in 2008 and 2013,” says Thowfeeq. “I am really worried and upset about the current behaviour of the EC.”

Can this be stopped?

There have already been two U-turns and there could be more. There has been plenty of debate online. But the developments are worrying because people are losing control over their vote, and this erosion is being normalised by state institutions.

“The reversal of EC decisions can be a good and bad thing. We know they can be pressured, but we don’t know what type of pressure is swaying them,” says Aiman Rasheed from Transparency Maldives.

“This is the symptom of the EC’s lack of willingness for inclusive decision making and transparency. We see successive mistakes, so people have room to question the integrity of the election process.”

Why should I care?

Tens of thousands of people are affected by the EC’s decisions and those tens of thousands could be the deciding factor in an election that will determine the course of the Maldives for the next five years, possibly more.

Yameen’s running mate wants him to stay in power for the next 30 years or “as long as he’s alive.”

The ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives has even suggested changing the constitution to make it possible.

“We have a very easy way of keeping President Yameen in power,” PPM lawmaker Ahmed Nihan has said. “It’s in the constitution that a president’s term is two five-year terms, but there is nothing about the prime minister’s terms. Even with just a small change, it is possible for us to keep President Yameen in presidency or to have him rule as the prime minister. God willing, the path will be paved for it.”