Maldives: yet another interrupted election

The Maldives Elections Commission must have been hoping it would be third time lucky at the weekend in its efforts to conduct a presidential election. Alas, it was not to be.

The first attempt was in September. A first round of voting was held, in which former president Mohamed Nasheed – who left office in controversial circumstances in February 2012 – led with 45.5% of the vote. That put him into a runoff against Abdulla Yaameen, the half-brother of the country’s former dictator.

But the Supreme Court first postponed the runoff and then voided the whole election. The Elections Commission tried again, but on 20 October the police prevented polling, citing a court finding that there had been insufficient time for Nasheed’s opponents to approve the electoral roll.

Since the term of incumbent president Mohamed Waheed Hassan expires today, desperate efforts were then made to get the elections over with in time, with a new first round scheduled for Saturday and a runoff (if required) the following day, yesterday.

Saturday’s voting apparently went smoothly. Nasheed again emerged with a clear lead, on 46.9%, but still short of a majority. Yaameen was again the runner-up with 29.7%. The third candidate, Qasim Ibrahim, whose support will mostly flow to Yaameen, had 23.3%.

But the idea of holding a second round the following day never seemed likely to work. Sure enough, the Supreme Court again intervened, ordering a delay until next Saturday. Yaameen had complained that otherwise he would not have sufficient time to campaign, and the court agreed it would be unfair.

I confess to having mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, as I said last month, Nasheed seems to have “very powerful enemies among the country’s establishment.” It’s hard not to see an element of conspiracy in the way that the Maldives institutions are working to keep him from returning to power.

International observers have urged that the election be held on schedule and expressed disquiet at the delay. The Commonwealth’s envoy, Don McKinnon, said he was “deeply concerned” at the ruling, and particularly condemned president Hassan’s decision to remain in office until the second round is completed.

On the other hand, it was unrealistic to expect a runoff election to be held the day after the first round in a country that stretches across 192 inhabited islands in a chain about 750 kilometres long. The Elections Commission is to be commended for being willing to make the attempt, but the six days delay will do it good.

Moreover, the argument that the election absolutely has to be held, even if unfairly, before the president’s term expires seems hollow. Section 113 of the Maldives constitution gives the Supreme Court “sole and final jurisdiction to determine all disputes concerning the qualification or disqualification, election, status, of a presidential candidate,” so it’s no great stretch for it to allow Hassan an additional week to cover a necessary and unavoidable hiatus.

In short, if the runoff is fair, the delay will do no harm – in fact it will increase both the perception and the reality of fairness. Whereas if it’s going to be rigged, there’s plenty of opportunity for Nasheed’s enemies to do that regardless of the timetable.

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