The Maldives is considered a holiday destination for many Europeans, but five European officials spent their time in the Maldivian capital Male meeting with members of the Opposition party ahead of the federal elections, scheduled for September 23rd, 2018. Amid rising concerns about the stability of the country’s democracy, the European delegation was gathering information about the ruling party’s dictatorial shift.
Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) Tomas Zdechovsky, Rapporteur for the March 2018 Resolution on the Maldives, Maria Gabriela Zoana and Ryzsard Czarnecki forfeited their vacation time in order to show their support for the Maldivian people, and to witness first-hand, the country’s slide into authoritarianism. Accompanied by Henri Malosse, 30th President of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), and Madi Sharma, British EESC representative, the delegation uncovered disturbing, undemocratic trends occurring in the archipelago. Attacks on democratic principles, combined with close ties to radical Islamist groups, brings the security of European tourists, business and investors into question.
Due to threats and intimidation, the EU delegation was forced to keep their schedule and agenda secret. Those willing to meet with the EU delegation knew they were risking arrest, imprisonment, and even violence, for speaking to foreign delegates and journalists. During the meetings, the reality of life in the Maldives, a truth not visible to the international community and the flow of incoming tourists, was exposed. In reality, the country most Europeans view as an idyllic tropical paradise, is “controlled by a dictator” who changes the law to suit his own purpose and has even been quoted saying he imposed the prolonged State of Emergency because “the law was getting in my way.”
The situation is deteriorating. Maldivian citizens are aware of the electoral fraud and manipulation taking place across the country. In the winter, a Federal State of Emergency was declared without legitimate reason, culminating in “anti-terrorist” laws which are used against political opponents, human rights activists and journalists. These new and unconstitutional Acts have allowed President Yameen to imprison Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed, as well as his political predecessor, 80-year-old Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who has been refused adequate medical care and is now dying in jail. A similarly passed “anti-defection” law has also led to 16 Members of Parliament being barred from the chamber, disrupting the voting ratio and granting Yameen’s Government the majority.
Meanwhile jihadists returning from foreign wars in Syria, Pakistan and elsewhere, are being released from jail, while Yameen’s political opponents remain incarcerated. Evidence shows these fighters are allowed to move freely between active warzones and the Maldives, opening channels of radicalization between Islamist states and vulnerable youth. It is clear that the “anti-terrorism” laws are not intended to address the real and persistent risks of terrorism in the country; rather, they are used as a political tool against Yameen’s opponents.
The Opposition Coalition still has a chance of winning the up-coming presidential elections – but these chances are squandered if the international community does not ensure free and fair elections. In order to show solidarity in the face of Yameen’s attacks on their democracy, the four opposition parties operating in the Maldives have formed a coalition and agreed on a common candidate, the respected veteran and lawmaker, Ibrahim “Ibu” Mohamed Solih. Fearful of Mr. Solih’s popularity, Yameen has done everything he can to corrupt the elections.
Opposition candidates have been obstructed from campaigning. They are not allowed to place posters or have rallies, hold public meetings, travel for the purpose of campaigning, or collect funds for their campaign expenses. The ruling party controls all the major television channels making it counterproductive for the opposition candidate to appear in political debates for fear that the content would be edited to his disadvantage. Furthermore, while four members of the opposition party have been arrested on dubious charges and are being held without due process, the remaining political leaders have been forced into exile under the threat of violence or arrest. Yameen has also stated, on multiple occasions, that he is interested in re-instating the death penalty, failing to specify which crimes would qualify for this punishment. This has left many political dissidents fearful for their lives. Yameen has openly said that he will use the death penalty before the elections.
All evidence points to the same conclusion: without international support, the up-coming federal elections will neither be free, nor fair.
There are already numerous reports about manipulation of voter registration forms, intimidation of workers (especially in the public sector, where they are forced to register for voting under the supervision of their managers), and the isolation of voting stations (making registered voters travel hundreds of miles to cast their votes). The composition of the Electoral Commission is known to be biased towards the regime. The non-disclosure of the voter list at this late stage makes verification impossible; additionally the lists do not have voter ID numbers nor photos. The First Lady has been implicated in voter distortions, when a secretly filmed interaction was published on social media of the first lady disclosing to her husband that all public service workers registration forms would be vetted before being sent for registration.
Opinion polls show a public support of a maximum 30 per cent for President Yameen. If free and fair elections do not take place, if the international community allows Yameen and his authoritative regime to steal these elections, the stability of his country will be threatened, posing, in turn, threats to the entire South Asian region.
In July, the European Council announced restrictive measures on the Maldives with the threat of targeted sanctions against individuals responsible for “undermining the rule of law or obstructing an inclusive political solution” in the Maldives, and those who have committed “serious human rights violations”. Due to the EU’s failure to specify the individuals they will be targeting, Yameen has declared the resolution as “false threats,” and he discounts the EU’s commitment to action. MEP Tomas Zdechovsky said “I was Rapporteur of the European Parliament Resolution on the Maldives. We have the list. It has 41 names on it; I have seen it. We have targeted sanctions. Now is time for strategy. The Resolution is clear; the articles are clear. We will send a strong message to the EU after this visit”.
MEP Ryzsard Czarnecki stated “Europe needs to do much more, and must coordinate with its international partners. But there should also be a warning to the people surrounding President Yameen who have committed human rights violations in his name: your names will be shared globally; there will be nowhere to hide. Yameen’s only loyalty is to power and greed. In the future, he will not come to the defence of those keeping him in power now.”
These are not false threats. The individuals concerned should consider their actions, as European sanctions will have serious economic consequences. A travel ban and frozen assets will impact business owners, thus stifling political support for those responsible for these violations. MEP Zdechovsky ended by saying “the international community will not stand by and accept a false election result; they will act together against the perpetrators – Europe is serious, its Members States are concerned and together they will work with the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and Japan to uphold democracy and the democratic process. The sanctions list will be disclosed.” Mr. Malosse added “the situation in the Maldives is a threat for the entire international community and concerns all of us. This situation could happen anywhere in a world where an ambitious apprentice-dictator builds a prison for his or her own people, supported by an aggressive superpower and terrorist groups. We will not let Yameen transform the paradise islands of the Maldives to a hell. If Yameen wins with threats and fraud, we won’t just ban his close friends, we will ban the whole country from tourism and investment.