Around this time in 2013 Fuwad Thowfeek was clocking up 15-hour work days, shuttling between press briefings, panel discussions and awareness programmes as the Maldives geared up for its second-ever democratic elections. Today, the former head of the Elections Commission is jobless, exiled and fears for the legitimacy of a presidential poll scheduled for 23 September.
“We were trying our best to get people’s confidence in the Elections Commission,” he tells the Maldives Independent. “It involved a lot of work, a lot of fights with the government. We were sticking to the principles of the constitution and the law.
“But nobody believes the EC today. Nobody respects it. I feel very sad. It’s like building something and then watching it get destroyed.”
His view is a bleak but not uncommon one. For months the Maldives’ electoral body has been criticised by the opposition, civil society and international watchdogs for its apparent lack of willingness to conduct free and fair elections.
Earlier this year local NGO Transparency Maldives said the misuse of state funds and inadequate trust in the EC had created an environment that was not conducive for credible elections. Last month the European Union turned down the EC’s invitation, saying it had no interest in sending observers.
The EC insists it is impartial, even as it faces allegations of voter list manipulation, inadequate ballot boxes for expats and resort workers and giving the ruling party access to classified information. But there is little reason to believe the claim, says Thowfeek. “These [members] are just robes, cronies of the [president].”
– ‘Democracy as a plaything’ –
Thowfeek, who is 63, has been the Maldives’ longest-serving election commissioner. Under him the often-chaotic presidential election of 2013 was widely praised for being free and fair. But the two-round election took five attempts to conclude.
The Supreme Court annulled the first round after disgruntled Jumhooree Party chief Gasim Ibrahim alleged there was vote rigging. The police twice surrounded the EC building, forcing it to abandon plans to hold a fresh round of elections as scheduled. Democracy “had become a plaything,” a frustrated Thowfeek said at the time.
Four months later, the Supreme Court sacked him and his deputy for “contempt of the court.” Afraid of arrest, Thowfeek fled to Sri Lanka.
His successor Ahmed Sulaiman was part of President Abdulla Yameen’s People’s Alliance, which merged with Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s Progressive Party of the Maldives before the 2013 election.
During his three-year tenure, the EC was frequently accused of doing Yameen’s bidding, insulating him from institutional accountability.
It upheld the controversial disqualification of 12 MPs, failed to hold by-elections within the stipulated period and three times postponed the 2017 local council elections. Despite the delays and concerns of vote rigging, however, the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party won 300 seats in the local council elections – far more than the PPM tally of 191.
In early 2018, Sulaiman resigned and was replaced by another Yameen-loyalist and current EC chief, Ahmed Shareef. His proximity to the president also raised questions. He had served as the People’s Alliance’s secretary general, been appointed the chief of state-owned utility firm Fenaka by Yameen and had offered jobs to opposition candidates in return for withdrawing from the local council election.
By early 2018 the EC had undergone a near-complete overhaul from Thowfeek’s time.
“During the five and a half years of my stay, we had trained all the [45 to 50] staff members,” says Thowfeek. “A part of this training was by the election commission of India, another by the Commonwealth. Most of those personnel have been transferred, resigned or removed.
“Like Shareef, [deputy commissioner] Amjad Mustafa is close to Yameen, [spokesman] Ahmed Akram is the brother-in-law of PPM MP Reeko Manik Moosa, [core member] Ismail Raheem was appointed during Yameen’s tenure and [core member] Ali Nashaath is a former IT guy who received a promotion.
“The EC today only has the people who will do whatever Yameen tells them to.”
– ‘Cautious and persistent’ –
Early into his appointment Shareef addressed concerns over his impartiality. He could be non-partisan despite his history, he said. He promised to work closely with media outlets, give accreditation to foreign journalists and international observers for the election.
But, for all the promises, the EC appears reluctant to give opportunities for independent oversight. Compared to the 102 international monitors and observers in 2013, only 59 are expected to come in this year.
The observers in 2013 were from Commonwealth member states, the US and Europe. This time the EC has not revealed which countries the observers will be coming from.
“The countries that were part of the monitoring exercise in 2013 did it voluntarily,” says Thowfeek. “We didn’t spend a single cent on them and they were given complete freedom of movement. In the last local council elections, I’ve been told the government gave them flight tickets, accommodation but also regulated their movements by showing them around. They didn’t have as much freedom as earlier. It might most likely happen this time too.”
Foreign journalists intending to cover the elections cannot enter with a tourist visa on arrival. They need to submit details of employment, travel history, qualifications, bank account and a police certificate to immigration for a business visa application, as well as having to gain a permit from the EC beforehand. Almost 28,000 Maldivians work in resorts but ballot boxes will only be in 35 resorts.
“There’s also a danger that the elections will be postponed,” says Thowfeek. “When you have a limited number of ballot boxes, some people travel for hours to vote. If the elections are postponed again and again, they might not return.”
The only way out, he adds, is for Maldivians to be alert, cautious and persistent. To insist on exercising their democratic mandate and protest when their rights are denied.
It has worked before, he points out. The EC was forced to increase the number of ballot boxes at resorts from five to 35 after a public outcry. It also abandoned plans for e-voting, saying it will stick to counting the votes at ballot boxes instead of initial plans to do it at EC headquarters.
“There might still be cases of double voting and a few cases of counting wrongly. There is a chance of people removing ink or using fake IDs. I’m just telling everyone to be very attentive, very cautious. If they are, nothing untoward can take place.”
The Maldives Independent has requested an interview with Shareef.
Photo shows the head of the Maldives’ Elections Commission, Ahmed Shareef