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Maldives: It's over the other 50 per cent voters?
N Sathiya Moorthy
13 February 2013

With the presidential elections now set for September 7, political parties in Maldives are vying with one another to identify issues and package them attractively for the voters, many of them youth. Number-crunching does not make things easier for them, given the complexity of the poll and the processes, and the inadequacy of a pattern that they could be relied upon with a certain level of accuracy.

The official notification of the polling date is not expected before July. If no candidate polls more than 50 per cent vote in the first round, there has to be a second, run-off round, between the top two. The Election Commission has fixed the September 21-27 window for the purpose. The official notification, when made, could throw clarity on this score.

Given the youthfulness of the average voters, the electorate is growing. The February figure is put at 240,000, in a population of 394,000 (July 2012) figures. It is 31,000-plus more voters compared to the electorate for the first multi-party presidential polls in October 2008. The current electorate comprises 123,565 male and 116,737 female voters. There was only a marginal increase in the number of voters for the parliamentary polls in May 2009. The Election Commission says the figure could go up as more voters register themselves in March.

It is only half the picture. Through three rounds of national elections, the voter turn-out has been falling, indicating a possible lack of enthusiasm in the electorate. It was a high 85.38 per cent for the presidential polls of 2008, down to 78.87 per cent for the parliamentary elections six months down the line. In 2011, the poll percentage dipped to 70 per cent, indicating that the youthful voter's fancy for casting his democratic right may be waning. The figure was also closer to the national average in the pre-2008 rounds of presidential polls, when multiple parties and multiplicity of candidates were not in vogue. The polling figure came down further to 70 per cent in the multi-layered local council polls across the nation in 2011.

How they fared

In the first round of presidential polls in 2008, the final victor and infant Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) candidate Mohammed Nasheed polled 25 per cent votes against the 40 per cent for incumbent President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. With the committed transfer of votes from Dr Hassan Saeed (16.5 per cent) and Gasim Ibrahim (15.5 per cent) in the second-round, Nasheed polled 55 per cent votes, against Gayoom's 45 per cent, to become President.

The political scenario had changed drastically in the parliamentary polls of 2009, after the MDP parted company with Hassan Saeed's Dhivehi Quamee Party (DQP) and Gasim Ibrahim's Jumhooree Party (JP). It could not maintain the high poll percentage of the past, and was reduced to the second place in the People's Majlis with Gayoom's Dhivehi Rayyathunge Party (DRP) becoming the single largest party, yet without absolute majority.

After a series of cross-overs and the DRP too splitting with President Gayoom floating the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), the MDP now has 29 members in the 77-seat House, followed by the PPM (18), DRP (14), JP (6), People's Alliance (2) and DQP (1). There are seven independents, too. The tally could well change after the presidential polls, if not earlier, and could be a factor in the parliamentary polls, which is due next year.

'Undecided voters'

Despite being an infant democracy, Maldives has a robust enrolment and verification scheme for new members joining political parties, not available in other South Asian nations, including India, the world's largest democracy. There are complaints about political parties falsifying their membership data. More dynamic verification and corrective measures have to be put in place before long if the Election Commission's registry of political parties has to remain a credible document.

It is thus that the MDP has a registered membership of 46,000-plus, followed by DRP and PPM (22,000-plus each), JP (11,000), followed by the religion-centric Adhhalath Party (AP) with 6038 members. Incumbent President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik's Guamee Iththihad Party (GIP) has improved his membership by about 1000, to 3300-plus in February 2013. However, the membership of DQP, the party floated by the second runner-up in the 2008 polls and at present Presidential Advisor, is 2093, less than the existing 3000-mark required for State funding of elections under the existing law.

Interestingly, these and other parties add up only to around 50 per cent of the total electorate. The other 50 per cent are non-party voters, not committed to the ideology or cause of any party or leader, though parties like the MDP and PPM in particular seem to have attracted non-committed voters to their membership rolls, going by available figures. With none of the parties thus in a proven position for their presidential candidate to cross the 50-per cent cut-off mark in the first round, efforts are on to attract more non-committed voters to their side.

The alternative would be a repeat of the 2008 experiment, which was also an experience, when Maldives went into the 'coalition mode' without anyone understanding or acknowledging it as such, in the run-off round. The perceived ills of multi-party democracy has since been attributed to the electoral scheme that has been inherited from 2008, but in effect imported from countries like the US and neighbouring Sri Lanka without much thought. In seeking to strike a balance between the Executive and the Legislature in the context of the nation's existing experience, the political parties seemed to have erred in not foreseeing the existing conditionalities elsewhere, and the derivative consequences when implemented in Maldives.

At the height of the political crisis since mid-2010, when the Executive and the Legislature were at the logger-heads with the Judiciary too not being left out, demands for a parliamentary form of elected democracy were freely aired. Those voices became louder, if not shriller, after the second constitutional crisis of last year, when President Nasheed quit on February 7, to be succeed by his Vice-President Waheed Hassan, under mutually adversarial conditions. Those voices have silenced since. They may possibly revive after the presidential poll this year and/or parliamentary elections next May.

'Developmental agenda'

There have been charges of parties in power offering sops to individuals and island-communities to enroll new members. If a share in power is the yardstick, none of the major political parties can escape the charge, they having been in Government at one time since the presidential polls of 2008. Much of these charges relate to development works of Government subsidies offered through specific schemes. If true, it is indicative of a constituency-driven electoral agenda for the political parties.

Over time, this could boil down to a 'domestic, developmental agenda' for the nation, where excessive polarisation based on political identification threatens to split families and divide island-communities that remain isolated from one another and the national capital of Maldives. Between the polls of 2008-2009 and the power-change in February 2012, the MDP Government of President Nasheed was diverting as much time to developmental concerns of the ruled as to the democratization issues worrying the rulers.

'Domestic developmental agenda' of the kind had encouraged the South Asian Indian neighbour to adopt 'democratic socialism' for the nation not long after Independence. The nation has progressed, despite the socialist hiccups. Against this, other South Asian nations either externalised the national agenda (Pakistan viz, anti-India rhetoric and wars) or excessively politicized the same (Sri Lanka and the ethnic issue, war and violence) that their people's developmental dreams at Independence still remain unfulfilled).

Unlike India, Maldives does not have multiple identifies and multiple layers of identities, for the political leaderships and their parties to worry about. That could also become a tempting condition for some or all of them to unwittingly sow the seeds of divisions and divisiveness that are not inherent to the nation's ethos, values and inherent needs and existential environment. The presidential elections this year and the parliamentary polls in the next could provide a clue to the direction that the nation would be traversing in the years and decades to come.

Unlike in 2008, when the parties and the people could claim that they were still caught unawares about the impending transition to democracy, this time round, they are on notice - and they themselves have collectively served that notice on themselves and the nation as a whole. The collective responsibility of keeping the nation united, despite the divisions that any democratic electoral process entails, rests on them all - jointly and severally. None can complain later that they did not know, or did not contribute to avoidable divisions, including those inspired by religion-centric electoral edicts that are not natural to the Maldivian psyche for centuries now.

At the cross-roads, still

Political analysts and leaders concede that the MDP is still the single largest party in the country, though they are divided if the Nasheed candidacy could win the elections in the first round. On this, the opinion is divided. The opinion is also divided about the likelihood of a prospective running-mate for Nasheed being able to poll those extra votes for the candidacy, or the ability of the party to attract prospective allies for the run-off round, if it came to that, as it was able to do in 2008. If accepted as true, that argument throws the presidential polls wide open.

The MDP is also stymied by the pending criminal case against President Nasheed, on charges of illegally detaining Criminal Court Chief Judge Abdulla Mohammed when in power. The Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM) has since upheld the charge. The multi-member Commission of National Inquiry (CoNI), wit6h a UN-cum-Commonwealth representative on board, which probed the power-change of February 7 last year, also took notice of the same. If convicted and punished, Nasheed could be disqualified from contesting the presidential polls. This could alter the electoral equations for the MDP. The party does not seem to have either a 'Team B' or 'Plan B' for the purpose - not at least known to the public.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the inherent inadequacies of the Government coalition are increasingly coming out in the open. If the Government parties decide to stick together, it could owe mainly to the relative proximity of the presidential polls than any desire on their part to collectively challenge the MDP from the first round polls, entailing a continued unity of purpose. Acknowledged as the single largest party in the Government, both within and outside Parliament, the PPM is yet to elect its presidential nominee, for which the mandated party primaries are to be held only in March.

The Government parties could come a cropper on the unity front in particular when Parliament meets for its maiden session this year, on March 4. While the MDP's conduct would be watched with interest and equal concern, after it had blocked President Waheed from delivering his customary address at the first instance on March 1 last year, and has to repeat the mandated ritual this time too, divisions within the Government coalition over the political parties' membership Bill has the potential to upset the apple-cart. President Waheed has since returned the Bill, prescribing a minimum 10,000 registered members for State funding of political parties, to Parliament.

If the PPM and DRP vote with the MDP Opposition once more on the Bill - and equally consequential MPs' privileges Bill, which again President Waheed has returned to the House during the recess - there could be problems for the Government majority in the Majlis. However, that need not translate automatically into a no-trust on President Waheed, which would require 52 votes in the 77-member House. For this to happen, the PPM and the DRP would have to vote with the MDP, which alone is keen on the subject. Yet, the party would be tempted to 'expose' the inconsistency of major Government parties, particularly during the run-up to the presidential polls, if only to 'caution' the voters as to what lay ahead if Nasheed was not elected President in the first round.

Bringing 'em to the poll stations

The MDP has been counting on the improvement of its poll percentage since the 2008 presidential polls, and use the 37 per cent vote-share in the local council polls as the bench-mark for it to improve upon. The adversaries are not impressed. They question what they argue is the 'selective pairing' of island-wise figures by the MDP to claim 37 per cent vote-share. They also relate the same to the rapidly falling voter turn-out in percentile terms, and argue that more voters are becoming 'non-committal'.

After leaving office, President Nasheed and his MDP leaders have been touring the wide-spread Indian Ocean atolls and islands extensively over the past year, something that other candidates seem wary of attempting - and worried about, nonetheless. The MDP could be expected to come up with an election manifesto, identifying issues and solutions that could be convincing for the island-population after the widely-popular 'Aasandha' health insurance scheme and island development projects from Nasheed's first term.

Not to be left behind and capable of being heard in the remotest of islands when pronounced from capital Male, JP's Gasim Ibrahim, and PPM's presidential hopeful Abdulla Yameen, both former Finance Ministers, have proposed 'oil exploration' off the Maldivian coast, aimed at cutting down on energy import costs and creation of jobs for the educated youth of the nation. More such promises aimed at attracting the youthful voters to the polling booths could be expected in the coming weeks and months.

Given the rapidly falling poll percentages over the past three rounds of national elections, the primary aim of the political parties would be to attract the voters to the polling stations in the first place. Assuring them with promises that they feel convinced can be kept would come next. That alone could tilt the electoral scales, now in the presidential polls, or later in the parliamentary elections next year.

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