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No Need for Sorcery to Stifle Democracy in the Maldives

Latest Government Moves Imperil Right to Vote

Abdulla Yameen takes his oath as the President of Maldives during a swearing-in ceremony at the parliament in Male November 17, 2013.  © 2013 Reuters

It appears that President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom of the Maldives will do just about anything to make sure of his party’s victory in next month’s election. Including denying some citizens the right to vote and even arresting people for allegedly using “black magic” to support the opposition.

It’s not hard to believe. Earlier, the Maldives Election Commission effectively banned four of his competitors from running for office on politically-motivated charges of terrorism. The police frequently arrests critics of the government under vaguely worded counterterrorism laws that criminalize peaceful protests. Journalists risk defamation charges and heavy fines. Opposition parties cannot hold rallies or carry out political campaigning.

On August 16 and 17, police arrested four men, including two senior members of the local island council, for allegedly practicing “sorcery” to bring the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) into power in the September 23 elections. The police confiscated materials, including a flash drive, books, and cell phones – hardly suspicious items unless you fear the opposition. The arrests of MDP supporters represents a more serious attempt to affect an election’s outcome than the albino turtles and “cursed” coconuts left at polling stations to frighten off voters in past elections.

Those detained for sorcery are seldom prosecuted, since there is nothing in the penal code to define the crime. But the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) is also engaging in a more insidious sleight of hand to make it hard for opposition supporters to cast their votes.

Since July 2, the Election Commission has made multiple changes and U-turns in regulating voter registration, including limiting the number of resorts – the biggest source of employment in the Maldives – that will have ballot boxes for local workers and requiring civil servants to re-register at their workplace under the supervision of ruling party appointees. Additionally, it is requiring citizens who apply for new ID cards, including those applying for government-funded social housing, to waive their right to vote.

Opposition parties and the nongovernmental organization Transparency Maldives have called on the government to address serious allegations of voter registration fraud, including reports that the ruling party’s officials went through re-registration forms of civil servants and only submitted those from their supporters.

Yameen has demonstrated little intention of holding free and fair elections. Concerned governments should denounce these tricks as further evidence of his determination to crush the Maldives’ fragile democracy.

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