CIVICUS speaks about the upcoming presidential election in Maldives with Shahindha Ismail, founder of the Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN).
The MDN, an independent civil society organisation (CSO) that since 2004 has worked to protect and promote human rights and the values and principles of democracy in Maldives, was arbitrarily deregistered by the government in 2019. Shahindha continues leading the organisation from exile in Germany and is currently completing a research project on violent extremism in Maldives, which she started as a Reagan-Fascell fellow at the USA’s National Endowment for Democracy.
How does the Maldives government relate with civil society?
The government is selective about the CSOs it engages with. More critical and vocal organisations receive no cooperation from the government. It has become commonplace over the past four-plus years to brush CSOs off and exclude us from government consultations as ‘unruly troublemakers’. The most worrying trend in this regard is the labelling, smearing and targeting of CSOs and individuals who criticise the government.
Additionally, one of the biggest obstacles the government has placed on civil society work is its systematic refusal to release public information, which violates the Right to Information (RTI) Law. The government ignores invitations from CSOs that conduct assessments of governance quality, depriving them of the opportunity to discuss their findings and recommendations with government officials. Public expressions of concern and requests regarding the malfunction of government systems generally go unheard and ignored.
Do you think the upcoming presidential election will be free and fair?
No, I think the election that will take place on 9 September has already lost any semblance of freedom or fairness. The government has unfairly, even unlawfully, monopolised all political spaces months ahead of the election. The government has sought to eliminate all viable opposition and has used judicial institutions to place one obstacle after another in the way of opposition parties, depriving them of precious time for campaigning. The Elections Commission (EC) in particular is seriously compromised, which affects the very principle of election freedom and fairness.
The latest news reports state that the incumbent, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, has declared at a campaign rally in Thaa Atoll that tensions will arise if Maldives has to go to a second round of voting during the presidential election. It is a direct threat to voters, even an incitement to violence. Every election Maldives has had since the 2008 Constitution introduced multi-party elections has had two rounds and we have never had a violent election.
In early August, the Supreme Court ruled that former president Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayyoom, the presidential candidate of the Progressive Party of Maldives, was ineligible to run. His conviction for corruption and money laundering is still under appeal.
A few months ago, the EC delayed the registration of The Democrats, a new party formed by a splinter faction of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). This party had formed following allegations of election rigging during the party primaries, in which President Solih competed against former president and Parliamentary Speaker Mohamed Nasheed. Over 39,000 MDP members were then removed from the voter roll and did not get to participate in the primaries. The EC said it had checked The Democrats’ membership and application forms and found them to be in order but needed a further three to four months to verify them a second time. Only much later was the party officially registered.
Weeks after this manoeuvre, the EC suddenly cancelled the registration of the Maldives Reform Movement, the party led by former president Maumoon Abdul Gayyoom, claiming it was short of around nine members to be eligible to remain registered, which the party denies.
Additionally, the media is coopted by the government, so you rarely see objective or critical coverage of government actions. Media coverage often looks like government PR rather than news. Unsurprisingly, the disinformation that has plagued the campaign, often coming from the government, has only been legitimised and amplified by mainstream media. Civil society has had a very challenging time getting their voices heard.
And the Solih campaign is using blatant tactics to influence voters that involve consistently abusing state resources, as civil society has repeatedly denounced.
For instance, on 22 August, two weeks ahead of the vote, President Solih announced a 40 per cent pay rise for all government employees, even though the previous day the value of the Maldivian Rufiyaa had dropped again and the national external debt exceeds US$3.8 billion. Additionally, hundreds of government jobs and promotions were handed out at state-owned enterprises right before the MDP presidential primaries, and increases in financial benefits for health workers, teachers and retired people were announced just months ahead of the election.
Another example of an attempt to buy off voters was the announcement of land distribution to the residents of Greater Malé, the capital city’s metro area. A list of over 19,000 eligible applicants was published in June 2023 and a confirmation list has just been published in August. However, while the government has announced that dredging will begin soon, it is not at all clear how much of the promised land is in reality above water. Large-scale infrastructure development projects such as airports, housing programmes and bridges have also been irresponsibly announced or contracted out with no information about when they will be completed.
What’s at stake in the election?
Concerningly, this election may result in a turn towards religious fundamentalism and deepened authoritarianism. Right now, President Solih’s only coalition partners are the Adhaalath Party and the Maldives Development Alliance, both notorious for their support of religious extremists. Solih’s alliance with the religious conservative Adhaalath Party in the upcoming election is particularly concerning, because over the past couple of years Adhaalath has taken extreme stands on various issues, such as condemning yoga as ‘prohibited in Islam’ and calling on the government to arrest anyone who practises yoga, and making public calls on the government to hunt down and punish gay men.
At a recent rally, Adhaalath’s leader and current Home Minister, Imran Abdullah, announced that the party was ending its reformist stance and embracing the goal of establishing Islamic rule in Maldives. While Maldives has had a constitution based on the tenets of Islam and principles of Islamic Shariah for centuries, they are now going to try to enforce a Taliban-style rule veiled as Islamic Shariah. This is all the more worrying due to the fact that under Solih, the government has increasingly fallen under pressure from religious extremists, taking extremely undemocratic actions every time.
What should the international community do to support a free and fair election?
I think the international community needs to take civil society concerns seriously. As in previous years, election monitoring by civil society is underway. In addition to planned observation of the poll, CSOs have been monitoring the campaign by collecting information through RTI requests, mainly related to the ways abusive government spending is being used to influence the vote. Information is shared regularly, domestically as well as with the international community. The main local observer, Transparency Maldives, has repeatedly made statements regarding the government’s behaviour in relation to the election. These concerns are based on evidence; they are not hearsay or opinion.
I hope that election monitors and the international community listen to Maldivian civil society’s repeated warnings. Repeated corrupt behaviour and abuse of state resources to deliberately influence the election should not be ignored by international election monitors, especially when the highest measure of a democracy is the existence on free and fair elections.
Calling this a free and fair election will only legitimise the undue influence of the government on election processes and results. It would be a betrayal to the people of Maldives in every sense of the word. Maldives will not progress if its non-democracy is constantly labelled as a democracy.
What’s your hope for the future of Maldives?
My hope is to have a government that genuinely and actively promotes the fundamental values of democracy. One that will educate its people to respect human dignity and teach them to coexist peacefully. This, I believe, can only be done by including a rigorous national curriculum of civic education and providing avenues to learn, such as access to free libraries, educational centres and affordable higher education. Only then will our people be protected against the appeal of corrupt politicians.
Civic space in Maldives is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.