Originally Published 2013-09-13 04:08:08 Published on Sep 13, 2013
If the legal proceedings mid-way through the Maldivian presidential polls, now before the High Court, run its course, with the possibilities of appeals before the Supreme Court at different stages, the constitutional scheme could end up threatening its own base and basis, one way or the other.
Maldives:  Polls getting trickier after the first-round
" After the first round of polling on 7 September, Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) candidate Mohammed Nasheed, with 45.45 percent of the popular vote, was seen as closer to the presidency than the other three in the fray. Yet, on a common, anti-MDP platform, rival Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) candidate Abdulla Yameen, the runner-up in the first round, had the numbers in his favour. Though Yameen had polled only 25.35 percent vote-share, with those of Jumbhooree Party's Gasim Ibrahim (24.07 percent) and incumbent President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik (5.13 percent), he would have automatically added up to 54.5 percent votes, way more than the 50-percent mark needed for a clear-cut win.

All those calculations may have changed — at least for the time being. Gasim Ibrahim has challenged the first-round processes and polls in the High Court. The court has since set the hearing for Sunday, 15 September. With the first-round results thus hanging in the air, both the MDP and PPM have decided to seek intervention in the case. The Election Commission, which is the respondent in the case, has already fixed the second, run-off round polling for Saturday, 28 September, the last day of the mandated three-week upper-limit for the purpose. Any hurdle placed in its way, however legal and constitutional, will have its own consequences, which the Founding Fathers did not seem to have anticipated, and in good faith.

Should the legal proceedings, now before the High Court, run its course, with the possibilities of appeals before the Supreme Court at different stages, the constitutional scheme could end up threatening its own base and basis, one way or the other. The alternative may have to be for the Supreme Court to call for the case files, suo motu or otherwise, and dispose them off, one way or the other, without much loss of time, the latter either by way of appeals or avoidable adjournments, which is not very common, anyway. An alternative could be for the courts to follow the existing system in experienced democracies, where no case shall lie against any election or the results until the processes had been finally completed.

Compulsions and complexities

Despite personality problems, analysts had assumed at the end of the first round that the non-MDP, anti-MDP parties would rally round Yameen for the second round. For its part, MDP strategists had projected that garnering an additional 4.5 percent vote-share was within their reach. Neither was as easy as presumed. A clear picture about the second round is thus unlikely to emerge until the courts had decided on Gasim's petition, and any interlocutory or intervention petitions, moved bv the MDP, PPM, the Election Commission, and/or possibly any voter, whose rights may have been affected one way or the other through the just-initiated legal processes. To the extent, the court's findings would also be a guidance for the future, both in terms of the conduct of polls or constitutional and election law changes that Parliament may have to consider.

More votes than voters

The court case now has caused a piquant situation, both for the authorities and the candidates themselves. For its part, the High Court has declined to entertain Gasim Ibrahim's interim plea for declaring the preliminary results of the first round as the final results, and thus clear the decks for the second round polling. Yet, prolonged doubts about the second-round now could come in the way or the EC's preparations, starting with the despatch of ballot-boxes and papers — including the printing of the latter, with only two names, instead of the original four. The EC would also have to coordinate with the police, the security arrangements, which were effective and efficient for the first round.

Ironically, Gasim's main charge is that in some ballot-boxes, there were more votes than the number of voters assigned to that particular box. Citing media reports, his party had raised the issue even as the preliminary results from the islands were being put together at the EC headquarters in the capital, Male. It is believed that the five-hour delay in the Election Commission announcing the preliminary results owed to the verification process employed on the JP's complaints — which also took the shape of a minor protest.

It is interesting to note from media reports that MDP's Nasheed too now seems to be sharing Gasim's views on extra ballots in some boxes. In this connection, the JP had also claimed that ballot papers had been printed by private individuals and used to defraud the poll process. Acting on the same, the police have since arrested two persons on the charge of printing and using ballot papers. It is not unlikely that the higher judiciary, while addressing Gasim's election petition, would seek a report on the police investigations before coming to any conclusion. All this again would consume time, which seems to be in short supply, just now.

Realignment, readjustment

Independent of the court case, realignment has already commenced for the second round. Having recorded a low 5.13 percent vote-share, President Waheed has since parted company with his running-mate Thasmeen Ali, president of the Dhivehi Rayyathunge Party (DRP), founded by former President Maummon Abdul Gayoom, before the latter walked out to found the PPM. Thasmeen has since gone on to support MDP and Nasheed in the second round. Media reports have quoted PPM leaders to say that Waheed is now with this camp. Likewise, religion-centric Adhhalath Party (AP), Gasim's partner in the first-round, too has pledged second-round support for Yameen.

Be it as it may, these cross-overs may not have contributed much in terms of the votes required for either Nasheed or Yameen to cross the 50-percent mark, to a second-round victory. Though Nasheed's requirements for additional votes are much less than that of Yameen for now, Thasmeen and the DRP by themselves may not be able to do it for him. Ditto with Waheed, but Yameen's requirements of additional votes are huge in comparison to that of Nasheed's. The decision thus rests either with Gasim, or the voter at large.

In a classic and conservative way, the first multi-party, two-phase presidential polls in 2008 witnessed a coalition of first-round losers joining hands for the second. In the process, Nasheed defeated Gayoom, the incumbent for 30 years. Like Yameen now, he had scored only around 25 per cent in the first round against the incumbent's 40 percent. Interestingly at the time, Gayoom, while losing in the second round, still managed to poll an additional five percent — the kind of vote-share that Nasheed now needs to win the second round and the presidency.

By far, Gasim Ibrahim alone is believed to have substantial number of 'transferrable votes' in his kitty, to be able to support a candidate of his choice, without reference to past and future positions. His going to the court now, instead of choosing between the top two has created a tricky situation, particularly for Yameen. With only 25 percent votes in the first round, he will have to garner every vote to be able to try and cross Nasheed's first-round tally. For that to happen, he has to convince his cadres and voters that he is a serious contender for the top job still — an image that would come his way if and only if Gasim is seen as backing him in full.

In comparison, Nasheed may be in a relatively comfortable and advantageous position. But that does not mean that the MDP could take his second-round victory. Having polled a high 45.45 percent vote-share in the first round after one and half years of high-pitched, extensive and expansive election campaign across the country and beyond, the party would now find it difficult to find every additional vote, to take Nasheed past the 50-percent mark.

The highest number of 88.2 percent polling in the first round too does not help Nasheed in particular, as the chances of substantial improvement in poll percentage for the second round are very limited. For starters, Nasheed, more than Yameen, would have to ensure that the high voter-turnout from the first round is maintained, not lessened. It is a challenging task, and the MDP cadres and their more imaginative strategists may not be wholly up to the task.

For his part, Yameen will have to convince Gasim, or his voters, to back him to the hilt even while retaining his own share and garnering those pledged now by the Adhahalath Party and President Waheed. For Nasheed, his getting even the fewer votes required for victory could become a tall task. The MDP will have to ensure the high voter turn-out as in the first, retain every non-cadre, non-supporter that they could garner through their persuasive skills, and also add the additional votes.

For either of them to happen, Gasim has to take a decision, and the courts have to take theirs in the first place. A clearer picture may emerge after Sunday, when the High Court is scheduled to hear Gasim's petition, after the traditional, two-day week-end.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter)

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