After much political drama, Maldives will witness second multi-party presidential elections on 7 September 2013. If the first round fails to throw decisive results, the second round has been scheduled on 28 September (21 days stipulated time gap) between the top two vote-getters. Of the total population of about 320,000 (as per the 2011 census), over 240,302 are eligible to vote. Of these, about 31,008 will be first-time voters, which means around 13 per cent of the total voters are between the age group of 18 to 23.
Although there are about 16 political parties in the atoll state, only five political parties have 10,000 members or more. They include the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM), Divehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP), Jumhooree Party (JP), and Adhaalat Party (AP). There are four leading candidates in the fray: former president Mohamed Nasheed representing MDP; current president Mohamed Waheed of Gaumee Ithihaad Party (GIP), but contesting under an alliance (consisting of GIP, DRP, Dhivehi Qaumee Party, and AP); Abdulla Yameen (half-brother of former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom) of PPM; and Gasim Ibrahim of the Jumhoree party.
Nasheed is contesting on the main plank of ‘restoring’ democracy, development and diplomacy. He is confident of winning the elections in the first round with ‘a handsome majority’. But’ in case the elections slip into the second round, there are bright chances for all other parties ganging up against Nasheed to prevent him from becoming the president. PPM, which is in alliance with prominent businessman Ahmed Siyam Mohamed’s Maldives Development Alliance (MDA), has been sloganeering on ‘Opt PPM or fail’. Except Nasheed, who is pitching for ‘liberal Islam’, all other parties are wielding the Islamic card. Jumhoree party, in fact, has appealed for ‘defence of Islam’. This is one of the major concerns of the international community, including India. How the new regime is going to confront the rising Islamic extremism in the coming years is going to determine the state of other dominating issues in the country – democracy, development and diplomacy. If extremism is allowed to rise its head and fester, then not only tourism (that contributes about 30 per cent of the country’s GDP), but also investment and aid would shy away from the country.
The importance of India to Maldives is conspicuous by the fact that most of the frontline candidates have visited India to discuss post-election cooperation. India gave asylum to Nasheed at its High Commission in Malé early this year and made sure there were no political vendettas. Yet, New Delhi has maintained absolute neutrality and has expressed its willingness to work with anyone who becomes president through free and fair elections. However, New Delhi would prefer to have a regime that does not play into the hands of Islamic radicals, that does not tilt towards China and that does not act against Indian economic and strategic interests.
For the time being, India’s role could be in two areas:
I. The budget allocated to the elections so far has been about 60 million Maldivian Rufiyaa (USD 4 million). The Maldivian Election Commission wants more. India could help in meeting the deficit and also any other assistance it may require. The institution should receive adequate support to fulfil the onerous task at hand. India has already extended training to the Maldivian EC officials, yet the Indian Election Commission should be prepared to do more even to the extent of offering voting machines or ballot logistics.
II. New Delhi also should ensure that the polls are held in a free and fair manner with the outcome acceptable to all contesting parties. A 17-member Commonwealth Observer Group will be in Maldives ‘to observe and consider all aspects of the electoral process with a view to assessing compliance with the standards for democratic elections.’ Apart from the Commonwealth team, about 400 personnel from ‘Transparency Maldives’ will be independently observing the elections. The whole electoral exercise would be futile if the political transition is not smooth. Hopefully, by a credible electoral process, Maldives re-enters Freedom House’s list of electoral democracies and also regains its name as a ‘modest model in the Arabian Sea’.