Who would have thought Elections Commissioner Ahmed Shareef would be celebrated as a saviour of democracy?
When provisional results were announced hours after polls closed on September 23, the Maldives held its collective breath to see whether the vote would be respected, fearing another farcical election annulment as in 2013.
Opposition supporters were jubilant but apprehensive when the results showed a landslide win for Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. It was widely expected that President Abdulla Yameen – who has jailed political opponents, declared states of emergency, suspended parliament and arrested Supreme Court justices – would not go quietly into the night.
And yet Yameen publicly conceded defeat a day after the election. The ruling party has since alleged vote rigging and signalled it would seek a Supreme Court ruling to annul the election. But the transition process has been continuing unhindered amid daily celebratory events with the president-elect.
All eyes were on the Election Commission in the seven-day period it had to announce the official result. The fate of the country rested in the hands of Shareef, a former ruling party stalwart and all-round Yameen crony. Remarkably, Shareef announced the final results within six days. And Solih was still the victor.
Yameen is now screaming theft, insinuating the EC took bribes and committed voter fraud. On Monday night, a president who effectively banned street protests in the capital joined his first demonstration while still in office. Addressing a handful of supporters outside the party headquarters, a defiant and perhaps delusional president said: “I really believe I would get more votes than this. We have to continue our work until the EC gives a definite answer.”
Setting the stage
True to form Yameen has also replaced the commissioner of police. The last time he changed the police chief, it was followed by a state of emergency and the arrest of two Supreme Court justices along with a former president.
When rumours of Shareef’s imminent arrest first surfaced, the former lawmaker displayed political savvy in going public. “I have done nothing that warrant arrest,” he told the press, affirming he would stand firm in the face of death threats and accusations of graft.
Shareef also dismissed a leaked audio of a phone conversation with an unidentified man, which the ruling party has touted as proof of wrongdoing. Multiple phone conversations were recorded without his knowledge, “edited, dubbed, and reordered to bring out a certain meaning,” he said.
“I have steadfastly faced the criticism before and after the elections. Then and even now I will stay on the path of justice. In a democracy elections are the voice of the people. That voice has been very clear. It is everyone’s responsibility to listen to that voice,” he tweeted Tuesday.
It emerged Friday that Shareef is now the only Elections Commission members left in the country. His four colleagues have all left for Sri Lanka after facing death threats.
It looked so different a month ago. Shareef was hand-picked by the president and endorsed by the ruling party in a parliament sitting boycotted by the opposition. Upon his nomination, the spokesman of the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party, MP Imthiyaz Fahmy, said: “We have no trust in his independence.”
His Twitter page was enough to question his neutrality. As the head of the state utility Fenaka Corporation, Shareef championed Yameen and worked in his re-election campaign, calling the president a hero while taunting the opposition.
“The opposition knows they don’t have a slight chance of winning an independent election against HEP Yameen because of his transformational economic agenda. The only way to achieve their selfish goals coming to power is to attempt a coup, using money they owe to the people,” he tweeted a month before his appointment to the independent electoral body.
Ahead of last year’s municipal elections, Shareef was caught on video promising jobs for opposition candidates if they withdrew their candidacies.
Citing his partisan background, the opposition alleged collusion and suspected Shareef would fix the election. But their fears proved unfounded.
Was it the unassailable margin of victory (over 38,000 votes) that gave him pause? Did the threat of targeted sanctions from the European Union and United States inspire him rise to the occasion? Was it political ambition to return to elected office that pushed him to make the pragmatic choice? Or perhaps he wasn’t such a bad guy after all?
His motivations many never be known. But what is clear is that Shareef, the Yameen uber-activist of yesteryear, is now the man upholding Maldivian democracy. The about-turn has surprised many and maybe even Shareef himself.