On Saturday, November 9, Maldivians will return to the polls, again, to vote for president. But instead of being an occasion for celebration of democratic consolidation following a difficult year and a half of political upheaval, Saturday’s presidential election represents an extraordinary and unprecedented do-over: they already held this election once before. On September 7, after months of preparations supported by the international community—diplomatically as well as technically, with experts from India, the International Federation of Electoral Systems, and the UN all working to support the Maldivian Election Commission’s efforts—voters went to the polls, with an excellent turnout of 88 percent, and delivered a process widely applauded as free and fair. Indeed, observers from the Commonwealth, the UN, India, and members of the diplomatic community all witnessed an election they judged as “transparent, fair, and credible.” The outcome was not decisive, as no party polled a majority of the votes, so despite the Maldivian Democratic Party’s (MDP) strong 45 percent showing, its plurality was not enough to win, and all seemed headed for the runoff required under the Maldivian Constitution.
Within days a strange development unfolded: Qasim Ibrahim of the Jumhooree Party, which placed third, filed a case with the Supreme Court alleging “irregularities” in the voter rolls and demanding invalidation of the results. The Supreme Court accepted the case, later decided 4-3 in favor of Ibrahim’s petition, and annulled the September 7 results. But the judicial system itself is not a neutral player in Maldives. Just a few months ago, the UN special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers had noted in her May 2013 report on the Maldivian judiciary concerns about “impartiality of judges,” among others. In her sharp statement on the Maldivian elections, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay singled out the judiciary for “interfering excessively in the democratic process” and “subverting the democratic process and violating the rights of Maldivians to freely elect their representatives.” So extraordinary was this delay and review, in fact, that it prompted another unprecedented series of public statements from the international community (in addition to High Commissioner Pillay’s) expressing concerns and urging that the elections get “back on track”: the UK, Commonwealth, UN, India, EU, and the United States.
This is a young democracy which only emerged from three decades of authoritarian, single-party rule in 2008, and which has a long list of weighty governance matters that they have to address urgently: precarious finances, climate and environmental problems, including dwindling tuna stocks (the second-largest source of foreign exchange after tourism), concerns about radical Islam and criminal gangs, religious freedom, and trafficking of persons. Maldives needs to overcome its political malaise and focus on dealing with the issues that threaten the livelihoods and well-being of its people. According to the constitution, a new president must be elected before November 11 to avoid a “constitutional void.” So Saturday’s election has a lot riding on it for the Maldives, on every front.