Thowfeek, who oversaw presidential elections in the country except for 2018 when he was in exile, talks about the upcoming presidential election.
Maldives Chief Elections Commissioner Fuwad Thowfeek has conducted all the Presidential elections in the archipelago nation, barring the one in 2018, when he was forced into exile. In 2008, he and the team inspired confidence in the first multi-party election process; in 2013, he stood firm even as it became evident that the party which had nominated him to the post, the Maldivian Democratic Party, was losing the vote.
When this correspondent met him during his years in exile in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Fuwad talked with great sadness about how the entire Elections Commission in the Maldives was packed with the loyalists of the then President, Abdulla Yameen, and lamented that all the progress which was achieved in the past five years, and across two presidential elections, had been undone. When asked at that time if the situation was not salvageable, he replied that all Maldivian people would not allow any autocratic rule would last forever.
Sure enough, in the 2018 elections, the people of Maldives chose to throw out Yameen and brought in his place a more agreeable Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. Though the Elections Commission packed with Yameen’s loyalists had swayed to Yameen’s fancies ahead of the conduct of the elections; it refused to be party to any subterfuge and certified the results. Fuwad’s prediction had come true.
Soft-spoken but firm, Fuwad took time out from his extremely tight schedule a mere two days ahead of the conduct of the Presidential election to talk to Frontline.
Given the fact that you are a political appointee who emerged from exile, what have you and the Elections Commission done so far to build confidence in the institution? Do the representatives of the opposition political parties trust you?
I have very good relations with all the political parties. We share with them all our activities from the very beginning. Even last week we had some advisory committee meetings where representatives of the candidates and representatives of political parties plus independent institutions were present. We keep everything very open, and everyone informed. That is one thing.
The other thing is that we do not hesitate to meet anybody. Whenever any political party or any person from the government or the opposition side wants information or seeks to meet us, we are ready to meet them and provide the information that we have. That is why I was able to create confidence in all the political parties in the country and the process is going on very smoothly. I am very happy about the developments and the changes that have come to the Election Commission recently.
How difficult is it to have ballot boxes in more than 180 islands, abroad in Embassies and the resorts (The Maldives has ballot boxes in 188 islands, 60 resorts, eight in Embassies overseas, five in jail and one in an industrial island). How do you manage this logistical nightmare?
It is difficult but with our efforts we were able to get people for all those positions—including those willing to go abroad with the ballot boxes. All of them were trained.
Are these ordinary citizens or government servants?
Some of them are government servants, and some of them are volunteers from the private sector. We try not to take any activists from any political party. We try to avoid the registered political party members. Especially, if we are sending them to foreign countries, we do not include them.
But in islands where we do not have a choice, we try to take registered political party members belonging to different political parties so no one party will be dominating the ballot boxes. There are many observers and monitors from here [Maldives] and abroad, but still we want to make the [booth] officials free, fair, and unbiased. So, we always first go for people who do not belong to any political party. If we don’t have enough, we take people from different political parties.
It is difficult for a country with so many small islands. Some islands have less than 200 people. Of this, the voting population will be less than 100 people. But still, we send ballot boxes there. We sometimes find it difficult to get officials to volunteer from those islands. In those cases, we try to get officials from nearby islands. If we are unable to manage this, for reasons which include conflict between political parties, we send officials from [the capital] Male.
So, we study the situation in all the 188 islands where we install ballot boxes. Plus we have 60 tourist resorts where we keep ballot boxes. So far it is going very well.
Once the voting process is completed, counting is on the same day, in the same booth, soon after the close of polls, right?
Yes. The polling starts at 8 am. Before the start of polling, we show the empty ballot box to representatives of candidates, observers, monitors, and at least two voters. The name of each voter is called out. He or she comes forward, indelible ink is fixed on the finger and the voter can vote.
Polling ends at 4 pm. If there are voters in the queue at the close of polls, we allow them to vote. After closing the ballot box, we give half an hour’s break for the polling officials to prepare documents for counting. The ballot boxes will be brought to a larger table and opened in front of all officials and representatives of candidates/political parties. For sorting purposes, nine slots are readied: eight for the eight Presidential candidates [this time] and one for invalid votes. After sorting, we count the votes. During counting each ballot is shown to all monitors and representatives of political parties/candidates. Counting is done more than once, to the satisfaction of all representatives.
All results are written on a results sheet. Once the officials endorse this, the sheet is pasted outside the booth. In short, the announcement of who received more votes in that booth is made public right there. The results are then entered into the system to be sent to the Elections Commission headquarters. A picture of the results sheet is taken, and uploaded into the Election Commission site, just as a measure of redundancy.
Usually this process gets completed on the same night…
If everything goes well, the results can be announced by midnight. But if there is any problem—I hope there are no problems—there could be some delays.
Since you have been conducting elections since 2008, barring the 2018 one, what are the changes that have come about in the past 15 years?
Technology has brought about a lot of changes. In 2008, when we looked at the voters list—we get it from the department of National Registration—there were so many errors in it. So we had a difficult time then. In 2008, checking the voters list was a problem. There were people who were registered in two or three places as voters. For example, they register in the place they reside. Again, the place they were born, etc. Once we noticed that there were so many people in more than one place, we announced that one person should register only in one place, In 2008, technology was also not that developed. Especially getting information from the atolls was difficult. Actually, the systems were more or less the same as now. The difficulty earlier was communication.
At that time we were using fax machines. The photos were taken [of the image pasted outside the booth after counting], and faxed to the Election Commission. But now, it can go by internet, and hence it is a smooth process. Earlier, when everyone tried to reach us at almost the same time, sometimes the fax machine got jammed, etc. Another thing was familiarization with the ballot paper itself. Earlier, before 2008, there was only one name and only a referendum on some issue or another was held. From 2008, there were additional names in the ballot paper, and it was no longer ticking yes or no. Teaching the voters these differences took time, when we became a multi-party democracy. With more education and awareness, people have understood the process and now it is a smooth affair.
We now use the election commission portal to facilitate re-registration for voters (such as changing voting location).
Is there a plan to introduce electronic voting machines?
We do not have electronic machines because people are not confident of electronic voting machines. They think the counting may not be proper. Actually, it will be much better and faster and more accurate but confidence is something that is lacking. People think that if it is electronic, it can be manipulated.
What is the kind of complaints that you are receiving from political parties during this election?
There are always complaints. Usually, it is from opposition candidates, who allege that the government is misusing its machinery. Comparatively the complaints are less than the previous time.