The elections commission has withdrawn its appeal of a civil court judgment that postponed the next local council elections by two months, drawing fierce criticism from political parties over the independence of the electoral body.
The commission said in a statement Thursday that the National Advisory Committee, which includes representatives of political parties, advised it to withdraw the case and to announce a new date for the polls.
However, the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party denied advising the commission to withdraw the appeal.
According to Ali Niyaz, the MDP’s deputy chairperson and representative, the commission informed parties that the polls cannot take place as scheduled on January 14 regardless of the high court appeal’s outcome since candidates would not have 28 days to campaign as required by law.
The deadline for accepting candidacy papers lapsed on December 1 and the commission planned to assign ballot numbers to candidates on December 6.
However, the ceremony was cancelled on short notice. The commission said it would reschedule but did not do so before December 16, the last date that would have left 28 days to campaign.
At last week’s advisory committee meeting, Niyaz said party representatives asked the commission to announce a new date as soon as possible.
The civil court order for the postponement came after President Abdulla Yameen’s faction of the Progressive Party of Maldives sought a two-month delay on the grounds that it was unable to prepare due to a leadership dispute that split the ruling party.
The elections commission has since been accused of bias in favour of the president’s faction of the PPM.
Opposition parties previously accused Yameen of stacking independent institutions with loyalists. Ahmed Sulaiman, the elections commission’s president, was formerly a senior member of a breakaway party founded by Yameen in 2008.
The Maldives United Opposition, an MDP-led coalition comprised of the Adhaalath Party and former Yameen allies, last week slammed the commission for “misleading the public by making it seem the [civil court] ruling had been appealed at the high court, falsely projecting that opposition parties favoured the delay.”
The opposition maintains that the commission deliberately stalled the appeal.
The commission said on Thursday that it first appealed the civil court order three days after it was issued. But the high court asked to revise the appeal and resubmit the case on December 18, it added.
Since the order for the two-month delay still stands, the commission said it would file another case “in order to complete the necessary legal processes” to prepare for the polls in accordance with the civil court judgment.
The MUO meanwhile went on to accuse the commission of “unlawfully facilitating more time” for Yameen’s PPM faction to prepare and field candidates.
The PPM did not nominate candidates before the December 1 deadline.
“The unlawful collusion between the elections commission and partisan elements of the judiciary have led to blatant denials of the fundamental rights of all other opposition political parties who have diligently campaigned, held primaries and nominated candidates for the local council elections,” the MUO said.
The opposition coalition urged “all concerned authorities, institutions and international well-wishers to prevail over President Yameen to establish a firm date and facilitate local council elections without further delays and to stop the concerted coercion of fostering unlawful collusion of independent state institutions to garner undue favour.”
Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who was controversially stripped of his powers as the PPM’s elected leader, also questioned the independence of the elections commission last week.
As the decentralisation law requires new councils to be elected 30 days before the end of their three-year term in February, Gayoom noted in a statement that the polls should take place no later than January 25,
He condemned the delay as an infringement of the rights of the Maldivian people and candidates contesting in the elections. Further delays will cast doubt on the fairness of the polls, he warned.
“Not holding the election on the date specified in the law is a clear obstruction of rule of law,” he said.
“Despite the constitution stating that the elections commission is an independent institution, the commission’s actions have been raising questions about its independence.”