Originally Published 2013-10-18 06:32:21 Published on Oct 18, 2013
With Maldives' Election Commission setting in motion the process for holding the first round of Supreme Court-ordered re-poll for the nation's presidency, political parties and voters alike are gearing up for a repeat performance of sorts, twice in as many months.
Maldives: Will court-ordered re-poll bring out clear victor?
" Maldives is at it again. With the Election Commission (EC) setting in motion the process for holding the first round of court-ordered re-poll for the nation's presidency, political parties and voters alike are gearing up for a repeat performance of sorts, twice in as many months. The EC promptly fixed the first-round vote for Saturday, 19 October, the deadline fixed by the Supreme Court in a 4-3 verdict.

The apex court did not stop there, however. After fixing 4 November as the deadline for a second-round poll, if the first round did not produce a 50-percent vote-share for any of the contestants, it has also been issuing interlocutory orders, based on the 16-point guidelines that the majority verdict had handed down the EC, in the first place. It is anybody's guess why the court could not divide the issues and their solutions even when it had engaged with them all, which in turn resulted in the annulment of the original polls and the issuance of the 16-point guidelines.

Thus, over the past week or so, the court disagreed with the EC directive that none of the four candidates originally in the fray could have their names deleted from the ballot for the re-poll. In the absence of a specific directive as part of the original judgment, there was nothing to suggest that the court expected the EC not to stop with the 'countermanding' or cancellation of the voting on 7 September, but also to provide time for the contesting candidates to decide whether or not they would want to continue in the fray.

In the ordinary/normal circumstances, such a course would have entailed the EC calling for fresh nominations, providing time for intended contestants to file their papers, afresh. In these not-so-ordinary and not-so-normal circumstances, the Supreme Court in a way took over the overall management of the presidential polls, that too with specific guidelines to the EC how to run the polls.

Post-verdict, the court also ordered longer time for re-registration after the EC opened the process as per the SC guidelines but closed it in 24 hours, to be able to prepare the final voters' list in time for the 19 October voting. Better or worse still, the apex court directed the EC to have the finger-prints of those seeking re-registration verified before clearing them to vote in a place outside of their ordinary/original place of residence.

The former question caused organisational confusion, and political posturing, what with the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), whose Abdulla Yameen, came a distant second in the annulled first round, contesting the EC's mode and methods at every turn. However, the PPM and the third-placed Jumhooree Party (JP) candidate Gasim Ibrahim had contested the EC-prepared voters' list first, and the re-registration process during the run-up to the annulled polls - but chose not to seek judicial intervention until after the results were known.

Given the geographical and topographical history of Maldives, re-registration seemed to have been thought of as a way to ensure that citizens who needed travelling out of their far-flung and thinly-populated islands for a variety of reasons, particularly to urban centres, for intermittent or long stays, were not denied the right to vote. Yet, at no time in the past had the founders and leading members of the PPM, who had had a free run of the Government and the people, thought it necessary to lay down conditions of the kind that they now insist upon.

It is another matter that in the present context, the Maldivian Police Service (MPS), which alone has the equipment and training to verify finger-prints, pointedly mentioned that they would require over six months to verify the 40,000-odd applications for re-registration, thus nullifying the SC's directive almost at birth. The court, which had privately sought and obtained the police forensic report on the legitimacy of some of the 'bogus votes' as presented by the JP petitioner in the 'election case', may have done well to consult them on the feasibility of checking finger-prints likewise.

Months ago, the EC had directed political parties seeking registration to obtain a due share of the State funding, in turn amounting to 0.1 percent of the GDP, to provide finger-prints of their registered members for verification. Based on representation from some of these parties, the EC however withdrew the directive after discovering that it had no mechanism or capability to verify those finger-prints as genuine or otherwise. By seeking the EC's response - if not that of the MPS -- on the subject before passing the orders, the court might have obtained a realistic assessment of the ground realities.

President bows out

With the SC clarifying the position, incumbent President Waheed has since declared his intention not to contest the re-polls. He had polled the lowest 5.5 percent vote-share in the annulled polls. His running-mate Thasmeen Ali, leader of the Dhivehi Rayyathunge Party (DRP), has deserted him in favour of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) nominee, Mohammed Nasheed, who came first with 45.45 percent vote-share.

In between, efforts were made for the non/anti-MDP parties to come up with a common candidate against Nasheed for the re-poll. As the least controversial, President Waheed seemed to have been a possible choice. However, PPM's Yameen poured cold waters over the proposal made by JP's Gasim. According to media reports, some sections of the PPM have also started talking about Gasim having struck a deal with Nasheed for the re-poll.

While Nasheed has sought to play upon the PPM campaign, Gasim however has clarified that the JP on the one hand and the 'JP Coalition' on the other would decide on a choice between Nasheed and Yameen when faced with the situation. Translated, it meant that the JP had not given up hopes on beating Yameen to the second place in the re-poll, with Nasheed too being forced into a second-round, without obtaining the mandated 50 percent vote-share for a clear victory in the first-round.

By distinguishing between the JP and the 'JP Coalition', Gasim seems to be keeping his options open for a hoped-for second-round, if he does not overcome the narrow gap with Yameen, to take the second place in the re-poll. In the annulled first-round, he had polled 24.07 percent vote-share against Yameen's 25.35 percent vote-share. In doing so, he may have also indicated the possibility of the JP parting ways with the anti-Nasheed, religion-centric Adhhalath Party (AP, the second largest constituent in the 'JP Coalition', if it came to that in a re-poll second-round.

Indications were that the AP made a unilateral decision to back Yammen for the annulled second-round, and thus handed down a fait accompli to the JP, without providing time and space for Gasim Ibrahim to conduct political negotiations with the two candidates, purportedly in the second-round at the time. With his considered decision to contest the first-round results in the Supreme Court, Gasim declared that he would decide on the future course, based on the judicial verdict. The court verdict has since put Gasim back in the race, so to say.

Since withdrawing from the re-poll, President Waheed has also announced his decision not to support any of the other three. Before the court had ordered annulment, he had declared his support for Yameen in the second-round polling, which the EC at the time had scheduled for 28 September. In a national address on Id Al-Adha, or Bakr Id, President Waheed argued that the Supreme Court having rendered the 7 September poll void, it was wrong to conclude that he had polled only 5.5 percent vote-share.

President Waheed's logic should go to contest his critics, among whom the MDP was the prominent, though only up to a point after the annulled poll. MDP's Nasheed called on President Waheed later, their first-ever, face-to-face, one-to-one meeting after the controversial power-transfer of 7 February 2012. Though the two were present at a televised debate among the four candidates ahead of the annulled polls, local media reported that President Nasheed did not greet his successor at the venue.

Deriving from the apex court order, the EC has also clarified that the names of none of the four contestants from the court-annulled first-round could be withdrawn from the ballot-paper for the re-poll. While the top three candidates from the annulled polls have declared their intention to contest, and have also launched their re-poll campaign, incumbent President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik, seems indecisive as yet.

New petition against Nasheed

What may have been disturbing in context was the move by PPM national council member Mohammed Waheed Ibrahim moving the Supreme Court, contesting Nasheed's candidacy, and challenging the EC's acceptance of the same. In doing so, Waheed Ibrahim, a lawyer himself, sought to revive the worn-out argument that Nasheed had acted against the tenets of Islam and the laws of the land, and thus liable to be disqualified from contesting for the presidency.

In a move that found positive mention in neighbouring India's public statement on the Supreme Court's annulment verdict, President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik "condemned the efforts to stop" Nasheed from running for the presidency. The PPM soon distanced itself from Ibrahim's efforts with Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dunya Maumoon, daughter of the party founder, declaring that it was "not the most ideal time to prosecute" Nasheed. She said that the party would urge Ibrahim to withdraw the court case, which she claimed was made in his personal capacity. It is unclear if the issue came for mention when President Gayoom called on incumbent Waheed in the midst of it all.

EC member quits

According to local media reports, Ogaru Ibrahim Waheed, a member of the Election Commission, has quit, and has written to President Waheed, as required under the Constitution. The reports have also noted that only three of the five members, including EC President Fuad Thaufeeq, have been appearing jointly in news conferences in recent days.

The PPM also revived the demand for all EC members to quit, citing the Supreme Court verdict and observations in the annulment case as the justification. The alternative would have been for the party to move a no-trust motion against them in Parliament, where the MDP combine now has an absolute majority. The possibility of a shaky and unsure EC could have avoided the poll process than already. However, the speedy arrival of the re-poll may have discouraged the PPM from pushing its demand too far, lest it should be blamed for adapting more delaying tactic than already.

No-holds barred fight

In such a background, the 19 October first-round re-poll promises to be as much a no-holds-barred battle between Yameen and Gasim for the second place, as for the first place, where MDP's Nsheed is still the favourite. The latter is leaving no stones unturned to ensure a clean and clear 50-plu percent vote-share for an absolute victory in the first round, unlike in the annulled polls. It is easier said than done, as the party campaigners would have to attract more 'undecided voters' to the booth than the highest 89 percent recorded in the annulled poll.

Against this, the PPM and the Jumhooree Coalition would have to work (only) for retaining their vote-share from the annulled poll, and hope and work for pushing the polls to the second round, all over again. In doing so, the MDP will have to focus even more on the urban/population centres, including the capital of Male, where they had claimed that they had the lion's share of votes but fell woefully short in the annulled round.

The issues for the re-poll are as old as those for the annulled one. The MDP is sure to go hammer and tongs on issues of democratisation and institutionalization, where it has found fault(s) with all that it had inherited when Nasheed became President in 2008. The rivals, united or divided as may be, are sure to continue to contest his democratic credentials on the one hand, and on issues of Islam and nation's sovereignty, on the other.

The question would, however, also remain what if the Maldivian judiciary found adequate justification in intervening a second time, particularly when the majority judgment had talked about the continuity of the incumbent government beyond the D-day for power-transfer, should fresh presidential polls could not be completed in time. It's only a theoretical possibility at this stage, but ahead of the judicial intervention, the world had not thought of the possibility or worked on the consequences, either!

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

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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