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Democracy Fights Corruption in the Maldives

The network of nearly 1,200 islands off India's coast is hard to get to, even more difficult to govern, and, as it turns out, nearly impossible to hold an election in without everyone accusing everyone else of voter fraud.
September 24, 2013, 1:30pm

Mohamed Nasheed addresses his supporters.

Contrary to popular belief and stunning Google image search results, the Maldives isn't an island paradise. The network of nearly 1,200 islands off India's coast is hard to get to, even more difficult to govern, and, as it turns out, nearly impossible to hold an election in without everyone accusing everyone else of corruption.

On September 7, Maldivians went to the polls to vote in the country's second democratic presidential contest, and a runoff election between the top two candidates was planned for September 28. But the country's judges have now postponed the runoff after the third-place finisher, the Jumhooree Party, claimed the results were tainted by widespread voter fraud. Considering that the last president, Mohamed Nasheed, had his term cut short by an alleged coup last year, it's unlikely anyone will be having a parade celebrating democracy in the Maldvies anytime soon.

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The country's problems start with Abdul Gayoom, the autocrat who used to run the Maldives and who has been accused of corruption and human rights abuses. He's still politically infulential—he recently got awarded the country's highest honor and is the "Honorary Leader" of one of the major parties. In fact, his younger brother, Abdulla Yameen, finished second in the general election to Nasheed, who was a political prisoner during Gayoom's reign before forming the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) upon his release.

Though the MDP won in 2008, the victory was short-lived, and Nasheed was forced to resign after the police joined a protest against his rule. His supporters maintain that he was ousted in a coup—MDP spokesperson Hamid Abdulla Gafoor told me, “Soldiers and police loyal to the former regime entered the presidential buildings and told him to voluntarily resign or face violence.” Nasheed complied, stating, "It will be better for the country in the current situation if I resign. I don't want to run the country with an iron fist."

The protests and their aftermath show what a tangled web of allegations and counter-allegations Maldivian poltics has become. The anti-Nasheed demonstrations began after he supposedly imprisoned a judge without due legal process. The judge, Abdulla Mohamed, had been part of Gayoom's cabinet; according to Gafoor he had "repeatedly released members of the opposition who had committed various crimes in the previous regime." Nasheed's resignation sparked a new wave of protests, this time from MDP supporters, who were assaulted by police and accused of violence themselves.

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Last September Nasheed was put on trial on charges of abusing his power. Crucially, he was barred by the court from leaving the capital city, Malé, which prevented him from campaigning for the 2013 elections. But after his case stalled in a higher court, Nasheed returned to the presidential race and ended up with 45 percent of the vote, 20 points ahead of Yameen.

MDP supporters campaigning in Malé, the capital of the Maldives.

When I called Gafoor, the MDP spokesman, to discuss the second round of voting, he told me that I was lucky to have gotten through to him. "I'm being prosecuted in two days for alcohol possession and drinking," he told me. "I’ve never been to court before and I’ll have an AK-47 pointed at me."

The majority of the Maldivian population is Muslim and the country's legal system is based on sharia law, meaning alcohol is nominally banned in the country. That said, it's not hard to have a quiet drink among friends without getting caught—unless you're running for election against one of Gayoom's friends, in which case you should be prepared to be caught and defend yourself in a politically-motivated court case.

"A third of MDP politicians have a case against them during the elections—it’s just utterly ridiculous," Gafoor told me, adding that he and his friends had been brutally assaulted by the cops. "I was having a meeting and the police came over to the island. They knew we were there, it was all premeditated," he said. "They put a bag over our heads and pushed us into the sand. They then started to kick us like footballs. Later, they took the bags off and I saw my friend—a man who must be over 60 years old—beaten until he was so bruised and swollen that I thought he was going to die. I’m scared for my life, even now. They took pictures and videos of us with the alcohol and gave it to the media. They wanted to defame us."

Protesters clash with police after Nasheed's resignation in 2012.

The other parties are also tossing accustations around. Yameen's spokesperson Ahmed Maloof told me, "We don't think that the elections were fair, so we'll be taking the issue to the courts," and the Jumhooree Party continues to fight the results in court, producing witnesses who claim they saw evidence of voter fraud. Transparency Maldives, an NGO that was monitoring the election, saw no such funny business, however. Nasheed's supporters worry that the Maldives' judiciary—which is full of Gayoom's old allies—will overturn their candidate's victory, a point of view that is shared by some analysts.

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"The courts and judicial system have a longstanding legacy of impunity and corruption," said Abbas Faiz, Amnesty International’s Maldives expert.

Many MDP politicians are also dismayed at the lack of international concern over the Maldives’ democratic transition. Despite David Cameron's calling Nasheed his “new best friend” in 2011, the UK prime minister didn't exactly rush to help when the MDP leader was ousted in 2012. Gafoor told me, “We are alone here, playing a game where we're fighting the referee as well as the opposition."

Whenever it happens, the runoff election will be a major moment in Maldivian history—a chance for democracy to conquer the corrupt power structure that has dominated the Maldives for decades. And despite all that's happened, there seems to be a strong public will for free and fair elections. As a hopeful Gafoor told me, "When the tide has turned, it’s very hard to swim against it."

Follow Philippa on Twitter: @PipBaines13

More elections from around the world:

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