While the international community is distracted by the ongoing tragedy in Syria, apparent election fraud is threatening efforts to restore democracy in what was until recently considered a bright spot for nonviolent democratic change in the Islamic world.
In the Maldives, popular former president Mohamed Nasheed - who was deposed in a coup last year -was expected to easily win a majority of the vote in the first round of Saturday’s election against three other candidates. However, the results show him getting less than 46% of the vote, forcing him into a runoff with Abdulla Yameen, half-brother of the former dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, whose allies seized power from the democratically-elected government in February 2012 and have ruled the small island nation ever since.
There are a number of troubling indicators that major fraud may have occurred in the election held on September 7, which raises questions regarding the integrity of the September 28 runoff. The official turnout reported by the media at the close of the polls was 70%. However, based upon the announced results, the official turnout was raised to an improbable 88%. A number of voting districts in which Yameen was popular reported anywhere from 10% to 300% more votes cast than there were eligible voters.
If the belated claims of a record turnout are to be believed, it would mean that 80% of the country’s non-voters were in the capital of Male, a stronghold of the pro-democracy movement, leaving only 5,000 non-voters on the country’s remaining 191 inhabited islands. Though there were international observers at many polling places, there appear to have been none at the more remote sites of the inflated vote totals. Without those alleged additional votes, Nasheed would have easily won the first round outright.
Though the Election Commission had originally announced that the results would be known by 11:00 that evening, they claimed at a press conference at that hour that they did not yet have the turnout figures, despite electronic marking of voters which should have made that information available instantaneously. While insisting that they sent out no more ballots than there were eligible voters, the quality of paper ballots was such that it would have been easy to make passable photocopies.
It appears, then, that the election was compromised by old-fashioned ballot-stuffing, a regular occurrence back during the Gayoom regime, which is apparently being used again in an effort to bring his half-brother to power and thwart the democratic hopes of the Maldivian people.
Nasheed, a journalist and former political prisoner, was the leader of a popular nonviolent pro-democracy movement which eventually forced the corrupt and autocratic Gayoom regime, which had ruled the Maldives for thirty years, to hold free and fair elections in October 2008. Nasheed and his Maldivian Democratic Party won a decisive victory.
Despite their best efforts, Nasheed and his democratic allies were hampered by a court system still dominated by corrupt judges handpicked by the former dictator, violent protests by conservative Islamists, and resistance by powerful business interests. Meanwhile, despite struggles at home, Nasheed took global leadership in pushing for concrete international action on climate change, from which rising sea levels threaten his nation’s very existence.
Despite maintaining the support of the majority of Maldivians, he was ousted in a coup after barely three years in office.
Fortunately, despite increased repression under the provisional government, pro-democracy activists renewed their nonviolent struggle, forcing the junta to allow for new elections. Despite harassment and periodic detention, Nasheed was able to organize a campaign based on democratic rights, tax reforms, and sustainable development.
By contrast, Yameen’s well-financed campaign focused on wooing conservative Islamist support and promising tough stances for “law and order,” including harsher prison sentences and—for the first time since that country’s independence—implementing the death penalty. At a press conference the day after the election, he congratulated himself by declaring he had managed to ensure Nasheed did not get a first round win.
Popular nonviolent struggles in poor countries emerging from authoritarianism and fighting corruption must know that the international community has their support. The European Union and other inter-governmental and non-government organizations must provide resources for independent monitoring of the second round of elections to make sure that it is free and fair, including observers at all vote-counting locations.
For years, the people of the Maldives have put their bodies on the line in nonviolent struggle for democracy and good governance. The question is whether those who engineered a coup and appear to have manipulated this latest election will now thwart the people’s will in the election runoff - and whether the international community will let them get away with it.