19 September 2018

This Sunday Maldivians will vote for a president. President Abdulla Yameen is seeking a second five-year term. International observers and the main opposition Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) have expressed concerns over the restrictions on foreign journalists wanting to cover the polls and the refusal of the Election Commission to share the final list of voters.

MDP has selected Ibrahim Mohamed Solih as its candidate for the presidency. He has been a senior member of the party and lead the first Parliamentary Group of the party in 2009. His wife Fazna Ahmed is a first cousin of former President Mohamed Nasheed.

Yameen, during campaigning, dismissed allegations of abuse of power. He said that if accusations about authoritarianism are true people would not go forward to greet him or shake hands with him. On the contrary he got warm welcome wherever he went.

In February, Yameen imposed a state of emergency to annul a Supreme Court ruling that quashed the convictions of nine opposition leaders, including former president Mohamed Nasheed. Since then Yameen has been ruling the country without the required quorum in the parliament.

Xinhua news agency reported that the government has invited seven countries to observe the election – two European countries, two South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries, two Asia-Pacific countries and one Arab country.

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) has uncovered fresh evidence which implicated the president in the improper lease of some 50 islands without any public tender. Internal tourism ministry files obtained by OCCRP also show that President Yameen’s office was recorded as intervening in at least 24 deals to grant the necessary permissions. The OCCRP, a global network of investigative journalists, examined the contents of three iPhones belonging to former vice president Ahmed Adeeb and documents. Files from Tourism ministry show the president helped with at least 24 leases were approved without bids. Yameen was personally involved in the discussions over the lease of the Mathiveri Finolhu island. The lease on this island was granted for $1.3 million to a Maldivian company called International Travel Consultant Pvt Ltd. The company’s founder, local businessman Abdul Razzag Ali, joined with a Russian partner to develop a resort on the island. A later report by the Maldives’ Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) said that Abdulla Ziyath, the then managing director of MMPRC had embezzled the $1.3m paid for the island.

Singaporean billionaire Ong Beng Seng provided luxury accommodation to the president and vice president while his Hotel Properties Limited was negotiating for at least two islands. Ong got two uninhabited islands without public tender, one for $5m and one for free, the OCCRP report said. Maldivian conglomerate Universal Enterprises owned by the members of the Maniku family got three islands. Ahmed Siyam Mohamed, a lawmaker obtained two no-bid leases for $500,000.

Former auditor general Niyaz Ibrahim was sacked one day after he released an audit report in October 2014. The audit report raised concerns about MMPRC’s role in the sale of leases of islands for hotel development.

A special audit done in 2016 revealed that some $80 million was embezzled through Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC) – the Maldivian 1MDB. Acquisition fees paid for 50 island leases were channelled into private bank accounts. Of this at least $1 million was deposited into a bank account belonging to Yameen in the Maldives Islamic Bank. Some of the money was then reportedly distributed to members of parliament, judges, and street gangsters.

Yameen said that some of the stolen money was also spent on electing ruling party officials to the parliament. The ruling party issued a statement saying the president’s comments had been misconstrued and taken out of context.

Adeeb was sent to prison on charges of plotting to assassinate the president. This was to probably silence him effectively. Yameen said he would recover the stolen money “to save” his reputation, adding that Adeeb could only be freed from prison if he returns the embezzled funds. But he has yet to return the $1 million that was deposited into his own bank account.

The OCCRP news release comes at a wrong time for Yameen ahead of the polls this Sunday. All the evidence uncovered by OCCRP was also available to Maldivian anti-corruption agency. The agency did nothing to investigate the missing $80 million even after the auditor general reported it.

Yameen appointed his ally Ahmed Shareef as the president of the elections commission. There is widespread fear that Shareef may facilitate vote rigging in favour of Yameen. Ahmed Shareef  had previously campaigned for Yameen.

People are concerned about the Elections Commission’s voter re-registration drive and think that it will facilitate vote rigging and electoral manipulation or hinder some voters from exercising their voting rights. Opposition accused that voter re-registration data was shared with Yameen’s campaign office.

At first, election commission had limited the number of ballot boxes to the resorts to 7 compared to 55 in the 2013 election. After a massive outcry, that number was increased to 35 last month.

Election commission has also introduced new rules by appointing 107 ruling party members to administer and count the vote. This will prevent independent observers and opposition members from seeing individual ballot papers.

Mariyam Shiuna, executive director of Transparency Maldives, an election-monitoring group in the island nation said there’s been a “large amount of fear, mistrust and frustration” in the lead around the vote. She added that Yameen has “systematically rigged the election in his favour” by “jailing opponents, limiting press freedom, and cracking down on civil and political rights”. Travel Wire News reported.

The main opposition Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) and local and international observers have also raised concerns over restrictions on foreign journalists wanting to cover the polls. Yameen’s administration made defamation a crime in 2016 to stifle any dissent. It also suspended 56 lawyers from attending court last year for demanding to uphold the rule of law.

Yameen has ignored calls from the United Nations, several western countries and India for an amicable solution to the political crisis. In 2016, the Maldives quit the Commonwealth group of nations, which threatened to suspend the country after it criticized the government for rights abuses. Reuters reported.