The government rejected proposed legal changes that would have banned sitting presidents from launching or announcing development projects during election cycles, the Maldives Independent has learned.
President Abdulla Yameen has made development the cornerstone of his re-election campaign, bragging about the amount of money spent on infrastructure since he came to power. His office has also publicised his achievements with a list of projects, their location and status although these do not match the reality on the ground.
Documents obtained by the Maldives Independent show proposals, from the Elections Commission, to bar the announcement of new projects and prevent the abuse of state resources were scrapped. The proposed amendments would have also prohibited special events during an election cycle to inaugurate projects already started by the government.
Yameen has inaugurated development projects in official visits conducted after June 8, when the EC announced the date for the 2018 presidential poll.
The President’s Office was unable to provide official visit numbers for the last three months.
But the Maldives Independent found that Yameen inaugurated at least 133 projects in the three months since the poll date was announced, in visits to 68 islands.
The state visits are organised by the President’s Office, a spokesman confirmed to the Maldives Independent. The President’s Office is publicly funded with MVR108 million (USD$7 million) from the state budget.
According to the General Act on Elections, it is prohibited for candidates to use public funds to campaign other than the funds allocated to political parties by the EC.
Yameen’s inaugurations include 19 harbour projects, 17 sewerage projects, seven water supply projects, six road development projects, three housing projects and multiple shore and beach protection projects.
The tally includes the lavish ceremony to open the Sinamalé Bridge, a multi-million dollar housing project pledged on July 26 and a ceremony in Malé during which the president inaugurated 50 “sport” arenas.
A majority of projects inaugurated by the president in June, July, August and September were completed as recently as late 2017.
In Kaafu atoll, Yameen inaugurated a harbour in Thulusdhoo that was completed in March 2017 and a harbour in Guraidhoo that was completed in December 2017.
Other findings show that in Baarah, Haa Alifu atoll, Yameen inaugurated a jetty harbour that was completed in 2016.
In Laamu Atoll he inaugurated the Laamu Link Road, which opened to traffic in 2016.
– Unfinished, unused –
In some instances the projects were not finished when they were inaugurated.
Mohamed Karim, the council president of Naifaru, Lhaviyani atoll, told the Maldives Independent that contractors are waiting on an excavator scheduled to arrive Thursday to deepen the lagoon of a harbour that was inaugurated by Yameen on August 31.
The same day, Yameen inaugurated a hospital on the island.
But councillors told the Maldives Independent that the five-storey building was just a building with no scanning or laboratory facilities, and no specialist doctors. Only three floors out of the five were being used by the upgraded health centre when Yameen inaugurated it.
“There are no specialist doctors, there has been no doctor for internal medicine for three years. President Yameen did not even go near the building to inaugurate it. He did it from the harbour area,” Karim said.
The hospital is about 200 metres away from the harbour area in Naifaru.
In Gadhdhoo, Gaafu Dhaalu atoll, Yameen launched four projects. Three of these have not been finished, according to council member Ahmed Rishfan.
The housing project in Gadhdhoo was completed in early 2017, but the housing units did not have electricity when the president gave away keys to some of the housing units. The sewerage project was incomplete as home connections to the network had not been done.
The only project inaugurated in Gadhdhoo that had been finished was a beach protection one — and that was completed in 2016.
– Abusing state resources –
During the 68 island visits Yameen attended at least two “functions organised by PPM.”
He also pledged key development projects in some of the islands, telling people of Kulhudhuffushi, in Haa Dhaalu atoll, that the island’s proposed airport would be completed before the election.
He promised to increase tourism infrastructure in the atoll and said WAMCO would start waste aggregation services in Kulhudhuffushi next year.
In Hulhudhuffaaru, Raa atoll, Yameen pledged a multi-purpose hall for the school, promised to ensure gender parity in state-owned enterprise boards in five years. He also promised a multi-speciality hospital for the island.
In Madifushi, Thaa atoll, Yameen pledged that he would “fulfill the dreams of the Maldivian people” and 10 days later Yameen told the people of Guraidhoo that “Maldivian people need[ed] a leader who can fulfil their dreams.”
The president can be seen during these visits being received by ruling party supporters dressed in the party’s pink colours, with the party’s flags and logo affixed around the jetty area.
Yameen visited 10 islands in the first year of his presidency, according to available records. He has made 68 state visits during this election cycle.
Mariyam Shiuna, executive director of Transparency Maldives, said Yameen was misusing state resources to campaign.
“The level of vote buying is one of our key electoral concerns and unlike previous years where cash distribution was common in exchange for votes, what we see in this election cycle is what can be deemed as gratuities being offered, like housing or things based on social needs; increase in [civil servants] salaries, waiving of fines.
“The Maldives has a history of vote buying, but this time we have seen an alarming trend of these types of incentives being offered.
“President Yameen is also doing all these state visits to the islands. But it can be clearly seen that this is blatant use of state resources for campaigning by the incumbent,” she added.
The amendment to bar the announcement of new projects was one of 34 proposed by the EC. Some were included in sweeping changes to electoral law made just three months ahead of the presidential election due on September 23.
Articles which would have prevented the abuse of state resources by the sitting government in order to secure votes also failed to make it into the amendment bill proposed to parliament by the ruling party.
The EC also proposed lowering the campaign spending ceiling from MVR1,500 per constituent to MVR800. The ruling party hiked the amount to MVR2,000 in the amendment bill submitted to parliament.
The EC recommendations are dated 2017. The amendment bill was submitted to parliament in June this year.
All photos from the President’s Office