South Asia

Maldives Votes for Change, Opposition Candidate Ibu Solih to Be Next President

Despite the heavy pall of uncertainty over the voting triggered by the government's strong-arming of the opposition, the high turnout of voters appears to have sealed the fate of the incumbent, Abdulla Yameen.

New Delhi: Voters in the Maldives have delivered a stunning upset in the country’s presidential elections, with provisional results confirming opposition candidate Ibu Solih’s lead over President Abdulla Yameen.

Maldivians came out in large numbers and waited patiently in line under a hot sun, sometimes for over eight hours, to cast their vote in the country’s third presidential elections on Sunday (September 23).

The Maldivian electorate of 262,135, spread around 1,000 islands and atolls in the Indian Ocean, had a choice between the incumbent President Abdulla Yameen and the joint opposition candidate, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, a low-profile, experienced politician.

Official turnout figures were not yet released, but the Election Commission spokesperson told The Wire that the approximate number of eligible voters who had cast their votes was over 85%.

After the polls closed, the opposition had been in an optimistic mood due to the large turnout of voters. However, they remained worried about the possibility of violence, which could disrupt the counting.

As the first results came in from the outlying islands and resorts, the joint opposition candidate got more than 80% of the votes. However, the lead dropped to below 60%.

After coming down to 58%, it remained steady for over three hours. By 11 p.m. local time, opposition supporters were ready to call the election for Solih, the veteran Maldivian Democratic Party politician.

At 11.30 p.m. local time, the difference between Solih and Yameen stood at just over 30,000 votes, with only 42,000 votes left to be counted. Within 15 minutes, Ibu’s lead over Yameen climbed to more than the total votes left, thus settling the issue.

Local NGO and election watchdog, Transparency Maldives announced on Twitter that Ibu Solih had won by a “decisive margin”.

A little later, the Maldives opposition also declared victorywith 8% of the vote still to be counted.

Past midnight, Solih appeared on television to deliver his first victory speech.

“For many of us, it has been a difficult journey. A journey that has led to a prison cell, or years in exile. It has been a journey that led to the complete politicisation and breakdown of public institutions. But it’s been a journey that has ended at the ballot box, because the people willed it. The will of the people has spoken. And it has spoken decisively for change,” said Solih, with his running mate Fasayl Naseem.

He thanked former President Mohamed Nasheed, who was watching the speech from a hotel in Colombo. He also acknowledged the support of former President Maumoon Gayoom and Adhaalath Party’s Sheikh Imran, who are currently behind bars. The other name that he took was of Jumhooree party leader, Gasim Ibrahim, who is also in exile outside Maldives.

He called on President Yameen to immediately begin the “smooth transition of power”. The next President is expected to take over only from November 17.

The Maldives Election Commission officially endorsed the results on Monday morning. However, till now, there has been no official concession statement from President Yameen.

Ibu and Naseem later joined the celebrations on the streets of Maldives in front of the campaign headquarters,

India, however, did not wait for the final official tally and welcomed Solih’s victory. “We heartily congratulate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih on his victory and hope that the Election Commission will officially confirm the result at the earliest,” said the Indian Ministry of External Affairs.

The US, which along with EU, has been a vocal critic of Yameen’s record on curbing civil rights and jailing opponent also issued an early response.

Turnout the key

Even before the sun had risen, queues had started to form outside polling booths dotted throughout the archipelagic nation. By the time the clock struck 8 in the morning, long lines of voters were moving throughout the Maldives, which has traditionally seen heavy voting, but largely in the afternoon.

According to election observers, the number of voters coming out in the early hours of the day has been “unprecedented”. The turnout in the 2013 presidential elections was over 91%.

This will be the first presidential elections in the Maldives to be decided by one round of voting.

Just 18 hours before polls opened, there was a heavy pall of uncertainty over the voting after police arrived at the multi-storey Shine Tree building housing the opposition’s campaign headquarters at around 3:30 pm on Saturday.

Maldives police told the opposition to leave the building, claiming that they had intelligence reports of “illegal activity”. MDP lawyer Hisaan Hussain claimed that the police had arrived without any court warrants for searching the premises.

After over five hours, the police obtained a court warrant, which stated that there were reports that a key campaign official was suspected of “bribing” supporters of the government.

Rumours had already been swirling that a pretext would be found to suspend the voting process. As the police remained inside the building, there were nervous moments among international observers about the intentions of the government in conducting a search of opposition premises.

On Saturday night, opposition members told The Wire that they believed the searching of the premises was done to affect preparations for the voting, with their computers and database left in the headquarters. “We need to do a lot of coordination among our supporters with so many outlying islands. We have to get out as many people as possible to vote,” said a core member of MDP’s campaign.

The presence of police inside the campaign headquarters at a crucial period also led to concerns about the integrity of their systems. “I believe they are actually after our database,” said the MDP member, adding, “Yameen has been losing confidence that he can win in the past few days”.

A little before midnight, the police left the building and handed it over, without finding any signs of “illegal activity”. However, the opposition had already started to operate from an alternate venue. “We wasted around four hours at a crucial period,” he said.

Meanwhile, many voters were getting text messages about their votes after the end of the campaign at 6 pm on Saturday. These text messages, which purportedly were from the president’s campaign office, stated that their votes had to be cast in another polling booth.

Later in the night, the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) issued a press release with a blanket denial.

Press Statement pic.twitter.com/gqpeWqyEBb

— Progressive Party of Maldives (@PPM_MDV) September 22, 2018

Even before the dates were announced for the elections, the polls had been controversial with the opposition criticising the choice of Election Commission chief. During the campaign period, there had since been a steady stream of allegations from the opposition and civil society over violation of procedures to hold a free, fair and transparent election.

Therefore, the main focus of the opposition had been to ensure that there was a heavy turnout. A turnout of 80-90% would be enough to smooth out any “rigging” in the pre-election process, MDP members said.

The joint opposition was confident of getting over 60% to 70% of the votes, which they felt was enough “buffer” to allow for any rigging and still win the elections.

Go VOTE!! #MvElection2018 pic.twitter.com/MuOIY0tVGs

— ? (@obofili) September 23, 2018

“We had asked our pledged voters to go out at sunrise and vote as early as possible,” said an MDP member.

According to Transparency Maldives’s Ahmed Tholal, the number of voters coming out to vote in the first half has been “unprecedented”. “Usually, people in Maldives vote in the second half or in the last minute. But, this time, it is different,” he told The Wire.

There were no major incidents reported in the morning, except for complaints from voters that they were standing in a queue for more than hour as the voting began late or that the line was moving very slowly.

The reason was apparently due to the connectivity of tablets provided to the election commission personnel manning the booths.

The opposition-aligned Raajje TV reported that an Election Commission member Ahmed Akram admitted that there had been “minor delays” in stating the voting process, but all issues had been resolved.

Poll stations use iPad provided by @ElectionsMv to check voters list. Slow connectivity and some device are not working properly. The main reason for long queues. #PE2018MV#Election2018#MvElection2018 pic.twitter.com/S71QXyoK7p

— ShafiuJameel #Vote2 (@ShafiuJameel) September 23, 2018

We have been informed that at Kalaafaanu School & Billabong school queue is extremely long and slow. Some people who came around 08:30 are still unable to vote. #PE2018MV@ElectionsMv

— Women & Democracy (@women_democracy) September 23, 2018

Due to the slow voting, the Election Commission extended the deadline for voting to 7 p.m., just half an hour before polling was scheduled to end originally at 4 p.m.

Even before doors of the polling station were closed, the MDP announced that their exit polls showed Solih would get 63% of the votes.

A key reason that the opposition had urged their supporters to cast their votes early was due to persistent rumours that violence could be expected in the afternoon, with stories spread through social media of ‘rogue’ policemen and hundreds of pardoned ‘gang members’ being ferried from the prison to the main islands.

The MDP spokesperson Ahmed Mahloof claimed that a “gang” had threatened to stab a voter at a polling booth in the capital. “A gang just now approached a person in queue to vote at Kalaafaanu School Ballot and threatened that he would be stabbed and they would create chaos after 12 pm, while in the presence of home minister Azleen, who was there to vote,” he posted.

Kalaafaanu School ga bahattaafaivaa Faresmaathoda Dhaairaage foshidhoshah gang akun gos Minister Azleen ves hunnavanikoh meeheh gayah valhiharaane kamah adhi 12 ge fahun hamanujehun ufahdhaanekamah bune inzaarudheefi. @PoliceMv inn KS ah samaalu vumah dhannavan. @OpsPoliceMv

— Ahmed Mahloof (@AhmedMahloof) September 23, 2018

There were also photos going around of bundles of national identity cards, which had been “bought” from voters by the ruling party supporters. According to opposition, this was a method being deployed to suppress the voter turnout, so that it would be easier to rig the results. PPM has denied any such allegations.

The soundness of the electoral process was crucial, as it would have dictated whether the opposition and international community will accept possible results of a win for Yameen.

The EU and the US had already cautioned that a lack of free and fair elections could lead to imposition of targeted sanctions against certain members of the ruling dispensation.

Transparency International, in their first assessment of voting after the opening of polls, gave a positive score. The non-governmental organisation, which has deployed around 400 observers, said that 66% of the polling stations were opened in the first 10 minutes, while 97% were open by 8:30 am.

It added that secrecy of the ballot had been ensured in 99% of the polling stations.

At the end of the day, Transparency International said that only 0.2% of the ballot papers were disputed by party observers during the counting process.

Both the candidates, and their running mates, cast their ballots in the first two hours of voting.

Yameen’s half-brother and former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who is currently in prison, also cast his vote at a prison facility on Maafushi island. On September 17, a state of emergency had been declared in Maafushi prison which houses Gayoom, former vice-president Ahmed Adeeb and former defence minister Mohamed Nazim. However, no reason had been provided for the state of emergency.

Yameen’s tenure also saw the jailing of former President Mohamed Nasheed, Yamen’s nephew and Gayoom’s son, Faris Maumoon, former ally and Jumhoree party leader Gasim Ibrahim, Adhaalath Party leader Sheikh Imran Abdulla, two Supreme Court judges, former prosecutor general and a former police commissioner.

According to sources, as the results became clear, Yameen went briefly to MNDF headquarters. However, he left soon after to go to his residence.

Earlier in Sunday evening, when the trend lines during the counting were starting to become clear, ruling PPM’s parliamentary leader Ahmed Nihan had tweeted, “Ruling PPM’s majority leader in parliament tweets – “PPM will have the courage to accept the results, even if we win or lose”.”

However, Yameen’s radio silence till now does bring a state of uncertainty over the transition period.

As per sources, Solih had called up Yameen, but the latter did not pick up his phone.

In Colombo, Nasheed had called upon the Sri Lankan government to be “robustly engaged” to ensure a smooth transfer of power.

As per diplomatic sources, the US, EU, UK and India, and others, are likely to take stock and consider the way forward if Yameen does not make formal concession.

The India angle

For India, this election is crucial as it will dictate whether relations with Maldives can show signs of improvement. India’s relations with Maldives have nose-dived under Yameen, who is seen as being intrinsically hostile to New Delhi and having laid out a red carpet for China.

During his election campaign, Gayoom had claimed that the opposition was in collusion with “western imperialist powers”, who were trying to dilute the Maldives’ Islamic identity. He didn’t mention India specifically, but repeated the inaccurate claim that MDP had “sold” Malé international airport to the Indian conglomerate GMR.

While Yameen kept silent, his supporters didn’t. A Maldivian news channel, Channel 13, which is known to be close to Yameen, broadcast a documentary on the topic of whether India was strategising to subsume the Indian ocean nation, just like Sikkim. A Twitter account, which is seen as a mouthpiece of Yameen’s campaign,  had a ‘pinned’ tweet about a “secret deal” between the MDP, the US and India.

Dhivehi Raajje dhevana Sikkim akah hadhaneetha? #Channel13 #Live #Maldives #Periscopehttps://t.co/wQh8EI4xIP

— Channel13 (@Ch13official) September 14, 2018

Unlike in previous elections, India has no observers in the elections. Maldives didn’t invite any Indian observer, and neither did New Delhi proactively send any monitors.

However, Indian media organisations, including The Wire, had applied for the required visa to cover the elections. While the immigration authorities in the Maldives claimed that visa approval was given for journalists from India, none of the applications had been approved in reality.

Movements of diplomats in the Indian embassy are already highly restricted, and therefore, India diplomatic staff were not able to directly observe a larger number of polling stations.

While India is looking with hope at a new regime, Maldives remains straddled with a heavy external debt due to Yameen’s extravagant spending on big insfrastructure project. A large portion of this is owed to China.

Note: This article was updated on September 24 to include Maldives Election Commission’s declaration of provisional results.