The 2017 local council election campaign concluded with final rallies in Malé on Thursday night followed by marches and vehicle rallies across the country on Friday afternoon ahead of a 6 pm campaigning deadline.
Speaking at the Progressive Party of Maldives’ final rally at the industrial village of Malé, President Abdulla Yameen reiterated the ruling coalition’s central campaign message of voting for candidates who would work together with the government.
Yameen said citizens who want development are obliged to vote for pro-government candidates. “The opportunity to empower a councillor who would have the chance to say no to the government’s development projects as well as efforts to bring about social stability, good principles, codes of conduct and religious harmony is coming on Saturday,” he said.
“If you do that, we will once again head towards conflict, and things would once again remain unfinished.”
Yameen also pledged that the installation of three water plants in the capital will be complete by the end of the year, which would ease pressure on the water company and serve as a backup in emergencies.
The management of the State Trading Organisation is also holding talks in Saudi Arabia for a deal to secure cheap oil, he revealed.
The May 6 election comes amidst renewed political turmoil with Yameen battling a new opposition alliance bolstered by the weight of his half-brother former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.
Jumhooree Party leader Gasim Ibrahim was meanwhile detained and put on trial last month amid the opposition’s efforts to gain a parliamentary majority with defections from the divided ruling party.
Other opposition leaders are either in jail or exile and Gayoom is in India on a private visit.
Unlike the previous local council elections, campaigning has also been minimal and muted throughout the Maldives, particularly in the capital. But the campaign has been more active and enthusiastic in some parts of the country.
Addressing the final opposition rally in Malé via a video message Thursday night, exiled former President Mohamed Nasheed called on the public to vote for opposition candidates in order to uphold the decentralisation system introduced in 2011.
“President Yameen does not want anyone other than him to have any power. The allied parties are obstructing his efforts to consolidate all powers. Today, you the beloved and honourable people have the chance to obstruct the consolidation of powers,” he said.
Devolving decision-making powers from the central government is essential to prevent tyranny and corruption, the opposition leader said.
The opposition’s policy is to allow islands to develop by using its own resources, he stressed, whilst the current administration is trying to centralise powers and “destroy” the six-year-old decentralisation system.
Since Yameen assumed office in November 2013, the ruling party-dominated parliament has stripped the opposition-dominated city councils of their powers and responsibilities.
Most municipal services were transferred to government ministries, leaving the Malé and Addu city councils with providing registration services and issuing birth and death certificates.
In late April, Yameen ratified an amendment to the decentralisation law that removed six councillors from the Local Government Authority, an oversight body tasked with coordinating the work of city, atoll and island councils.
Six representatives from city and atoll councils as well as a member representing the public were removed from the LGA’s board.
The president was also authorised to appoint the other five members, subject to parliamentary approval, including a cabinet member, a chief executive officer, a civil society member, and two experts in the fields of gender equality and public administration.
Saturday’s election is also due to take place despite the refusal of opposition candidates to endorse the voter list. A controversial guideline imposed by the supreme court during the 2013 presidential election requires all political parties and independent candidates to verify and approve the voter registry.
Candidates from the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party and ally Jumhooree Party have refused to sign the lists citing concerns over accuracy. But the elections commission maintains that their refusal is not a legal obstacle to conducting the polls.
In addition to the accuracy of the voter registry, the MDP has also raised concerns over alleged plans for vote rigging.
Contacted by the Maldives Independent, the elections commission’s senior media official, Azwa Riza, was unable to provide information about the election-related complaints filed by opposition parties.
Shathir Abdul Rahman, an MDP elections committee member, said the party’s main concern is the lack of identity card numbers on the final publicised voter list.
“There is no way to verify the accuracy of that list. We also believe the state is trying to influence the elections,” he said.
“Why else would they change the prices of commodities and services with just a week left till the polls?”
Shathir added: “There is an oppressive environment that does not provide an equal opportunity for all political parties to hold campaign events. We believe that the state is, directly and indirectly, attempting to influence the polls.”
The housing ministry refused to grant the carnival area in Malé for the opposition’s final rally. Citing ongoing road repair work, the police also informed the MDP that a vehicle rally could not go ahead as planned on Friday afternoon.
However, the PPM was allowed to hold a vehicle rally in the capital with loudspeakers. Opposition supporters marched in the capital’s suburb Vilimalé and gathered near the MDP’s meeting hall in Malé to conclude the campaign with a prayer.
In a letter sent to the elections commission last week, the MDP meanwhile shared a list of 16 deceased people who were included in the final list.
The party also found that three people were registered to vote in Malé despite filing an application to vote elsewhere and two women who did not re-register were changed to the capital.
Citing issues with the voter registry, Shathir said: “Whether the polls take place on Sunday or Saturday, we do not believe that a free, fair and transparent election can take place in the country with the current elections commission under the rule of President Yameen.”
The opposition insists that the independent electoral body is stacked with Yameen’s loyalists. The five-member commission’s president Ahmed Sulaiman was formerly a senior member of the People’s Alliance, a party led by Yameen before he left to seek the PPM’s ticket in 2011.
The 2017 local council election was first scheduled to take place on January 14 but was postponed after the PPM petitioned the civil court for a two-month delay citing the loss of its database and membership registry.
After rescheduling the polls for April 8 in the wake of the court ruling, the commission postponed the polls again to April 15, claiming that public schools were unavailable to set up polling stations at an earlier date.
The elections were delayed for the third time to May 6 with the commission claiming that the situation in the Maldives was not conducive for campaigning due to a flu outbreak.
But a week after the commission’s announcement, the education ministry announced that public schools will reopen as the seasonal outbreak of the flu and viral fever was under control.
The three-year term of local councils expired on February 26 and the decentralisation law required new councillors to be elected 30 days before that.
But the civil court said councillors will remain in their posts until successors are elected, referring to “a state of necessity,” a principle previously invoked by the supreme court to legitimise former President Dr Mohamed Waheed’s continuation in office after the end of the presidential term on November 11, 2013.
According to the elections commission, 563 councillors will be elected to 179 island councils, 67 councillors to 18 atoll councils and 23 councillors to three city councils.
A total of 255,987 Maldivians are eligible to vote and 422 ballot boxes will be set up across the country. The elections commission has printed approximately 431,939 ballot papers for the vote.
Some 1,497 candidates are contesting in Saturday’s polls.
As mandated by the 2008 constitution, elected local councils were introduced in the Maldives for the first time under the landmark 2010 decentralisation law. The first elections were held in February 2011.
In the previous local council elections held in January 2014, the MDP won 457 seats (41.5 percent) and the PPM won 281 seats (25.5 percent).
The PPM’s coalition partners at the time, the Jumhooree Party and the Maldives Development Alliance, took 125 seats (11.4 percent) and 59 seats (5.4 percent) respectively.
The Adhaalath Party secured 45 seats (4.1 percent) – including a majority in three councils – while the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party won one seat (0.1 percent) and independent candidates won 132 seats (12 percent).
Voter turnout was 63 percent, well below the 90 percent turnout in the presidential election of November 2013.
Additional reporting by Saya Ahmed