|Supporters of Mohammed Nasheed protest in Male on Saturday. (Reuters)
New Delhi, Oct. 19: Maldives police on Saturday blocked a presidential election rerun ordered by the country’s Supreme Court, rebuffing New Delhi’s repeated calls to the strategically critical Indian Ocean nation to hold the scheduled polls and leaving India scrambling to respond to the diplomatic setback.
The archipelago’s election commission said the police had ordered it not to hold the election that was mandated to yield a new President before November 11 under the Maldives constitution, pushing the nation in India’s backyard towards a crisis.
New Delhi responded sharply, asking the Maldives government to hold the polls — a rerun of an earlier election on September 7 that the Supreme Court controversially annulled — “without further delay”.
Officials in New Delhi and at key Indian embassies abroad have begun emergency weekend talks with their counterparts in the US, UK and the European Union to collectively pressure Male to hold the election promptly, senior officials told The Telegraph.
“India is deeply disappointed that the repeat first round of the presidential elections was not held as scheduled today, October 19, and that the election commission was not allowed to proceed with holding elections as per its constitutional mandate,” the external affairs ministry said. The British foreign office also criticised the move to hold back the polls.
Two of the candidates contesting the re-election had refused to sign the voter list despite repeated attempts by the Maldives election commission to reach them, officials at the tiny nation’s poll watchdog said.
The Maldives government’s decision to stall the election is a snub to India, which had sent foreign secretary Sujatha Singh to Male on Thursday to convince President Mohammed Waheed and the presidential contestants to hold credible polls and accept the verdict.
The development also deepens the political chaos in a country wracked by instability since early 2012, when Mohammed Nasheed, the country’s first democratically elected President, stepped down claiming a coup that independent observers did not confirm. Nasheed’s Vice-President, Waheed, has since stepped in as President with outside support from other parties.
The islands that make up the Maldives are closer to the Indian coast than Delhi is to Calcutta, and India fears its rivals and militant Islamic groups may use the instability in Male to target New Delhi’s strategic interests in the region.
Male has traditionally depended heavily on India both economically and for its security. In 1988, India sent special forces to the Maldives after Tamil rebels from Sri Lanka attempted a coup in Male.
Saturday’s rebuff comes just 10 months after Waheed scrapped a 25-year contract Nasheed had inked with Bangalore-based infrastructure firm GMR to build and operate an international airport at Male.
India had smoothened ties with the Maldives after a spat in the weeks after the termination of the GMR deal, and had hoped to ensure a stable, elected government in Male.
Indian officials held multiple rounds of talks with the four presidential candidates in the months leading to the September elections, stressing that it wanted free and fair polls and requesting the contenders to allow a peaceful transition of power.
Like foreign secretary Singh, who had returned to New Delhi “optimistic” because of the response she had received from the presidential candidates, other Indian officials too had earlier come back from Male with commitments that none of the contenders would try to derail electoral democracy in the Maldives.
But political inclinations shift fast in the Maldives, and India received its first shock right after the September 7 polls that observers from India, the European Union and other independent international agencies had dubbed free, fair and credible.
Nasheed had secured 45 per cent of the popular vote in that election while Yameen Abdulla, brother of political strongman Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who had ruled the Maldives for 30 years till 2008, had come second with 25 per cent votes. Gasim Ibrahim, a third candidate, received 24 per cent votes while Waheed earned just 5 per cent.
Under the Maldives constitution, a candidate must secure 50 per cent of the votes to be declared winner. If there’s no clear winner, the top two candidates must contest in a run-off.
But Ibrahim, who had narrowly missed out on the run-off, appealed to the Maldives Supreme Court alleging electoral malpractices. The court first put the run-off on hold indefinitely, and then annulled the September 7 elections, ordering a fresh first round of polling on October 19 with the possibility of a run-off on November 3 if needed.
Waheed has since declared that he will not contest and has instead indicated support for Abdulla. But Ibrahim and Abdulla refused to sign the electoral rolls put out by the election commission ahead of Saturday’s scheduled polling.