Administrative processes during Saturday’s local council election were “marred by the questionable decision by the Elections Commission to arbitrarily extend the voting time,” Transparency Maldives has said after observing the voting process.
In a press release sharing its preliminary findings, the local chapter of Transparency International urged the electoral body “to undertake serious confidence building measures to strengthen the electoral process.”
The opposition alliance also cried foul Saturday evening when the commission decided to extend voting hours to 8 pm in polling stations that opened late. Voting hours were also extended to 6 pm for polling stations that opened on time at 8 am.
Hassan Latheef, chairman of the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party, called the decision an “unlawful” attempt to influence the outcome.
The Elections Act only allows an extension of predetermined voting hours “if there are individuals waiting in line to vote” when polls close.
The voting hours announced by the Elections Commission was 8 am to 4 pm but more than 28 polling stations reportedly opened late. In most cases, the delay was caused by the late arrival of officials, the commission said.
Ahmed Akram, an elections commissioner, told newspaper Mihaaru that the extension was made following requests by political parties. He refused to name the parties but apart from the MDP and opposition Jumhooree Party, the other parties contesting were the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives and coalition partners Maldives Development Alliance and Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party.
“We received complaints about long queues and congestion. As political parties had requested an extension, the commission went and checked polling stations and extended the time because we did not see any legal obstacle to doing so,” he was quoted as saying.
The announcement about the extension came minutes before polls were due to close. Several ballot boxes were reportedly sealed at 4 pm and reopened after officials learned of the extension, a violation of electoral law.
The MDP chairman told the press that the move was intended to “encourage more government supporters to vote” as the majority of opposition supporters had voted by 4 pm.
On Saturday evening, the state broadcaster and other pro-government outlets meanwhile reported that a group of opposition politicians have “stormed” the elections commission’s office in Malé.
But the MDP and JP leaders told the press that they went seeking a meeting with elections commissioners but were forced out by a large number of police officers.
Shortly thereafter, the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives called a press conference and condemned “the opposition attempt to to forcefully enter the Elections Commission”.
Majority Leader Ahmed Nihan said: “The opposition are working to cause loss of public confidence in this vote.”
The commission meanwhile informed the press that 30 complaints were filed during the day, which concerned issues such as discontentment over long queues, inconsistent procedures and wrong ballot papers sent to a polling station.
The commission was also looking into reports of fake ballot papers and result sheets circulating on social media as well as allegations by a woman about someone else voting in her name.
Akram previously told local media that the “high-quality ballot papers” were printed with strong security features. None of the complaints was serious enough to affect the outcome, he stressed.
But the opposition highlighted “serious concerns” with the voting process.
“Some candidates and their representatives were not provided with the pass to monitor the elections. Some voters do not have their name on the designated voter list for their respective constituencies,” MDP vice president Mohamed Shifaz told reporters.
“We have filed numerous complaints at the commission. They are blatantly lying to the public by saying that they received only a few, minor complaints.”
Transparency Maldives meanwhile observed 19 ballot boxes in 10 atolls and noted that voting began late in several polling stations.
Among its key findings, the NGO said 12 voters were not able to vote due to administrative issues such as their names not being on the voter registry.
“Out of the 19 ballot boxes observed, 15 ballot papers had extra marks, and three voters showed their ballot paper before casting the vote,” TM said.
“Studies conducted in the Maldives suggests that similar acts are measures to ensure that those offered money or gifts vote to the candidate/party who offered money or gifts.”
In November, the ruling party-dominated parliament rejected proposed legal changes to invalidate ballot papers with markings or symbols.
On the larger political and electoral environment, TM expressed concern with the multiple delays of the election and the backdrop of political turmoil “with all opposition political leaders either currently in jail, in exile or facing criminal charges.”
The situation “hindered opposition political parties’ ability to freely campaign in the run-up to the election.”
Other problems highlighted by the NGO include “the lack of a level playing field for opposition political parties, severe and arbitrary restrictions on media freedoms, freedom of assembly and expression, all of which restrict political and campaign activities; vote buying and the misuse of public resources for political campaigning.”
The state broadcaster Public Service Media “while denying coverage of opposition political campaigns, disproportionately covered political campaign events of the ruling party,” TM said.
“Such actions not only undermine the integrity of PSM but also serves to provide the ruling party with an unfair advantage and precludes a level playing field.”