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How to Rig an Election (in the Maldives)

The Maldives Independent does not condone election rigging.



There are three things you need to rig an election, says Professor Nic Cheeseman who has co-authored a provocative book on the subject. “Influence, popularity and money. If you don’t have these three things you’re dead in the water.”

The Maldives is weeks away from a presidential election that could return it to democracy or nudge it towards dictatorship, with the poll following months of political turmoil and controversy.

President Abdulla Yameen has targeted his opponents to ensure they pose no threat to him on September 23, and his administration is facing down censure and sanctions to press on with a poll it insists will be free and fair.

The opposition has accused the ruling party of colluding with the Elections Commission, which has in recent months denied allegations of voter fraud and stealing votes from the nation’s resort workers.

There have also been concerns over the number of Maldivians living outside their island of permanent residence – like those who have migrated to the capital – re-registering so they can vote in the current place they are living in on polling day.

But there is more to rigging an election than voter fraud and a re-registration system that is open to abuse. The traditional thinking is that politicians steal elections because they are hungry for power or get attached to power for power’s sake, says the UK-based academic, but it’s more complicated than that.

“The countries where elections are most likely to be rigged are those where leaders are insecure,” says Cheeseman, who is professor of democracy and international development at the University of Birmingham. “They rig elections to protect themselves, to stop themselves from being prosecuted at an international court or a domestic one. They also want to protect themselves and their allies from being persecuted by the people who would come into power after them.”

The book, How to Rig an Election, exposes the limitations of elections as a way of promoting democracy and reveals strategies used by dictators to undermine the electoral process to ensure a win.

Vote buying and behind the scenes manipulation are strategies for under the radar and low volume rigging, he tells the Maldives Independent. “These don’t get picked up by international donors unlike repression and violence. The most common type of election rigging is vote buying. It’s the strategy we see the most everywhere.”

Cheeseman and co-author Brian Klaas based the book on hundreds of interviews and their firsthand experiences as election watchers. The book features examples of election rigging from Argentina, Brazil, India, Nigeria, Russia, the United States and Zimbabwe.

“There are three things you need to rig an election: influence, popularity and money. Is there influence over the electoral commission? Otherwise you can’t influence the count or the voter registration process,” says Cheeseman.

“You have to be popular, in that people actually have to like you. You can’t rig an election if everyone hates you. People need to vote for you. It’s easier to rig 10 percent than it is 40 percent.

“If you want to rig an election you need funds towards vote buying and employing people to attack your rivals. It requires money and the government usually has more money than the opposition.”

– Ushahidi –

There is little that citizens can do individually to stop election rigging, says Cheeseman, but he talks about a Kenyan crowdsourcing project that was used in 2013 to track cases of voter intimidation or misdirection and any violence.

Ushahidi was developed to map reports of the 2008 post-election violence in Kenya and was deployed again years later for election monitoring. Kenyan voters were able to submit reports about their voting experience through the Ushahidi website, app or a simple text message.

“But you do need someone coordinating this and you need a reasonably capable civil society behind this,” says Cheeseman.

“What people can do is increase the cost (of rigging an election),” he adds. “You can embarrass them (the government), you can make them look less legitimate. It might not be enough in a country where the government doesn’t care what people think.”

Yameen’s administration has brushed off criticism from the European Union, which is imposing sanctions over rights abuses, and from its neighbour and traditional ally India. It is in hock to China by several billion dollars and the economy’s condition has caused alarm among global financial institutions.

It appears the Maldives has little to offer politicians – no oil reserves or land borders for leverage – but Cheeseman disagrees.

“Politics is about many things. It can be about covering things up. It can be personal. One of the reasons we don’t want to lose power is that the people who come after will see the paperwork. There will be investigations, court cases, fines, even imprisonment. You don’t just lose control over the country you lose control over your life.

“Even though the prizes are small, competing for the biggest prize is still the biggest prize on offer. It’s the biggest game in town.”

– Losing your marbles –

But election rigging by the incumbent is not enough to win an election. Cheeseman cites the case of Gambia, where people used marbles rather than ballot papers to cast their votes.

Yahya Jammeh, an authoritarian president who ruled for 22 years, lost to property developer Adama Barrow. The challenger had never held political office but won the 2016 election with 45.5 percent of the vote.

“In Gambia the leader thought he had done enough to rig the election but he didn’t. He underestimated the opposition coalition and how it had galvanised support. If you want to rig an election by a small amount, under the radar, then vote buying and identity fraud is the way to do it. For a bigger win something needs to affecting the vote on the day.

“With confusion or problems over the registration process you can say it’s an administrative cock-up rather than a government conspiracy. You can make it look like it was the difficulty of organising the election but that only works when you’re trying to rig a small number of votes.”

Cheeseman laughs at the Maldives Independent’s far-fetched suggestion that Yameen could simultaneously appease the international community and decimate the opposition alliance by freeing his political enemies, triggering instability that could see an election delayed or even cancelled.

He says he has not heard of an amnesty to create chaos, but that security threats are used as a strategy to avoid elections.

“A security threat is quite common, the idea that the opposition is a force of instability, that there could be some sort of coup, that the opposition is being backed by a foreign power.

“It allows you to paint yourself as a patriot and everyone else as a traitor. It also legitimises censorship, intimidation and heavier security presence.

“People will say we want to promote peace and stability so you get security forces on the streets and these are seen as representatives of the ruling party. You can create an atmosphere to win. You’re getting more of your guys to vote and you’re stopping the opposition guys from going to the polls.”

While he doesn’t recommend that opposition parties resort to election rigging – even if democracy is at stake – he says he has heard opposition politicians say they should be able to buy votes because it levels the playing field.

“But they don’t have the money like the ruling party and they don’t have control over the electoral commission,” he remarks.

There are more losers than winners when an election is rigged, whoever triumphs and however they did it.

“Controversial electoral processes play into long term civil unrest and even civil wars. People will ask why they should play by the rules but you’re encouraging people to look for ways to to seize power in other ways – and other means include taking up force. You’re facilitating a challenge to the state and it can escalate,” says Cheeseman.

How to Rig an Election, Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas, Yale University Press (320pp, US$26)