Male, Maldives – The usual din of fishmongers’ cries on the Maldivian capital’s waterfront was drowned out by loud boos on Tuesday when a truck carrying flag-waving activists campaigning to re-elect President Abdulla Yameen lumbered past them.
It’s a sight that has become common in Male’s busy market, where a web of pink and yellow campaign banners hangs between every lamppost and from every fishing boat’s mast. Earlier this week, Yameen’s spokesman was booed out of the area by opposition supporters angry over corruption and human rights abuses in this popular Indian Ocean honeymoon destination.
Yameen, 59, is standing for a second five-year term in polls on Sunday, promising “transformative economic development”, including jobs and housing for the Maldives’ large youth population.
The election is taking place amid a wide-ranging crackdown on dissent.
Over the past five years, Yameen has suspended parliament and jailed or forced into exile nearly all his political rivals, including two Supreme Court judges who defied him by ordering the release of opposition leaders.
The president also declared two states of emergency in three years, citing threats to national security. But the opposition coalition said the measures were aimed at staving off impeachment.
“I have very little hope in the prospect for a free and fair election,” said 60-year-old Aishath Rasheeda as she stocked up on breadfruit and yam chips at the market.
The shopkeeper said she fears violence on election day, but was determined to cast her ballot. “I will vote, I have always voted,” she said.
Rasheeda signalled her support for the opposition by drawing the number two in the air, the ballot number assigned to Yameen’s opponent, and said every vote counted in the Maldives, where the eligible voter base is just over 260,000.
No one is more aware of that than Yameen.
He won the 2013 election by a narrow margin of 6,000 votes.
That, too, after the Supreme Court annulled the result of the first round of voting – in which Yameen came in second – and delayed the rescheduled polling twice. Many hoped his election would bring an end to the unrest the country was plunged into when its first democratically elected president, Mohamed Nasheed, was forced out of office the previous year.
However, turmoil in the Maldives only intensified under Yameen.
Nasheed was sentenced to 13 years in jail on terrorism charges in 2015, setting off fresh protests and leading to the arrest of hundreds. The opposition leader, who lives in exile, has now teamed up with three other political parties, including a faction of the ruling party led by Yameen’s half-brother, former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, in a bid to overthrow him.
The opposition’s joint candidate, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, a member of parliament, has promised to restore democracy, release dissidents, and investigate corruption allegations against Yameen.
With so much hanging in the balance, there has been a “lot of fear, mistrust and frustration” in the lead-up to the vote, said Mariyam Shiuna, executive director of Transparency Maldives, an election-monitoring group in the island nation.
“We are just days away from the election, but people are still unsure if the vote will take place,” she said.
That’s because Yameen has “systematically rigged the election in his favour” by “jailing opponents, limiting press freedom, and cracking down on civil and political rights”, she said.
The mistrust has only intensified since Yameen appointed a key ally to head the national electoral body in March, she said.
A year before his appointment as president of the elections commission, Ahmed Shareef was canvassing support for Yameen. A video posted on his Twitter account from January last year shows Shareef promising government jobs to opposition challengers contesting a local council election if they forfeit their candidacies.
Pictures from the same period showed a smiling Shareef wearing a Yameen 2018 T-shirt as he handed over the forms for 2,300 new recruits for the ruling party. In a Twitter post in February 2017, he accused the opposition of plotting a coup because it does not have “a slight chance of winning an independent election against Yameen because of his transformational economic agenda”.
— Fenaka Corporation Ltd (@TeamFenaka) February 11, 2017
“Nowhere else in the world would an election be considered free when a ruling party activist or a campaigner is appointed as chair of the elections commission,” Shiuna said.
The opposition’s complaints against the commission have been relentless in recent months.
First came allegations of disenfranchisement when the commission limited the number of resorts – the biggest source of employment in the Maldives – that will have ballot boxes for local workers to vote at, from 55 in 2013 to 7. After a massive outcry, that number was increased to 35 last month.
Then came accusations of collusion; the opposition claimed the registration information submitted by voters in order to be eligible to cast their ballots was shared by the commission with Yameen’s campaign office.
And now, with days to go before the poll, the opposition is accusing the commission of introducing new rules that will prevent observers from seeing individual ballot papers and appointing 107 ruling party members to administer and count the vote.
“We are very worried,” said Eva Abdulla, an opposition politician in Male. “We are uncertain what will happen on election day because the commission is setting up conditions to engineer and falsify results.”
‘Most peaceful election’
Both the election commission and the ruling party have dismissed the opposition’s allegations.
Ahmed Akram, Shareef’s deputy, called the accusations against the president of the commission, as well as concerns over collusion, “an attempt to incite fear by reducing turnout” and “undermine confidence in the election”.
“We will not act against the law,” he said. “We are ready to hold a peaceful and orderly poll.”
Ahmed Nihan, a senior ruling-party MP, concurred, saying he was certain Yameen “will win a second term with a healthy majority”.
The president and his Progressive Party of the Maldives are “fully capable of respecting, accepting as well as celebrating the decision of the Maldivian public”, he said, adding it was the opposition that was seeking to undermine the vote and create unrest.
He pointed to a Facebook post by Defence Minister Adam Shareef on August 4, in which he reported “receiving information about plots to destabilise the country and create unrest in the coming days”, and a police press conference last week in which a spokesman warned of plots to commit “dangerous acts” on election day, without specifying who was behind them.
These “acts” were part of an attempt to show the international community the poll was neither free nor fair, the police spokesperson said, adding widespread arson attacks – similar to unrest in 2012 following Nasheed’s overthrow – may take place in the Maldives’ three most populous islands.
Despite opposition attempts at inciting fear, “We will ensure this poll is the most peaceful election this country has ever seen,” Nihan said.
Abdulla, the opposition politician, sees it differently.
She said the comments by the police and defence minister were aimed at creating a pretext for Yameen “to call off the vote if he wants or create unrest on that day and blame the opposition for it”.
But she said she still has hope.
“We have the votes,” said Abdulla. “And when large numbers of people vote, when the people’s stand is clear, it will be difficult for Yameen and his associates to jeopardise the vote.
“So be alert, go vote early and then get ready to protect your vote.”
Isha Afeef reported from Male. Zaheena Rasheed reported and wrote from Doha.