“Have you made your decision?” queried an individual on Majeedhee Magu. “Only when the payment is received,” responded the other.

Such interactions have become ubiquitous even on the bustling streets of the Maldives as the presidential election nears its final stages. Vote-buying, a lingering menace to the democratic process, gains heightened focus with a mere four days left before the polls open.

This electoral cycle has garnered particular attention due to the unprecedented number of undecided voters, despite a record-setting eight candidates in the fray. Polls consistently indicate that the majority of the electorate remains indecisive, raising the stakes for those looking to purchase or sell votes.

Persistent Yet Inconclusive Impact of Vote-Buying

Both local and international observer groups have consistently observed vote-buying practices in past elections. However, it is noteworthy that this illicit activity has not significantly impacted electoral outcomes or compromised the overall credibility of the process.

The Evolution of Vote-Buying Tactics

Initially deployed as a straightforward strategy to disenfranchise opposing voters by confiscating voter IDs, vote-buying tactics in the Maldives have grown increasingly sophisticated. 

Tactics now range from offering monetary incentives and narcotics to youths, to ‘exiling’ potential voters to uninhabited islands. More recently, the strategy has evolved to include promises of post-election benefits, which are confirmed via specially marked ballot papers.

The Demographics and Logistics of Vote-Buying

Vulnerable communities, especially those facing economic hardship, are the primary targets for vote-buying operations. The schemes have also become intricate, often involving intermediaries who distribute money or goods and verify that voters have upheld their part of the clandestine agreement.

Empirical Data on the Scale of Vote-Buying

Only one comprehensive study exists that furnishes statistical data on the prevalence of vote-buying in the Maldives: a nationwide survey conducted by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) in 2014. 

The study revealed that 37 percent of Maldivians have either personally been offered money or gifts for their votes or have witnessed others receiving such offers.

Legislative Obstacles in Curtailing Vote-Buying

While legislative mechanisms have been proposed to deter vote-buying, their implementation has been stymied by a lack of political will. Proposals to invalidate ballots with unauthorised markings, for example, have been withdrawn from parliamentary consideration. Further exacerbating the issue is the absence of comprehensive campaign financing laws, allowing politicians to exploit legislative loopholes.

Recommendations from Observer Groups

In the aftermath of the 2019 Parliamentary Elections, Transparency Maldives urged the strengthening of legal frameworks to explicitly criminalise voter manipulation. International observers have emphasised the need for greater transparency in campaign financing, calling for regulations on funding sources and campaign expenditure limits.

Safeguarding Democracy’s Fragile Fabric

As the Maldives approaches another critical presidential election, the issues surrounding vote-buying remain unresolved and fraught with complexities. While the practice has not yet substantially influenced electoral outcomes, it continues to cast a shadow over the democratic process. 

Stringent legislative reforms and political will are imperative for safeguarding the integrity of future elections. This calls for a collective effort from state authorities, civil society organisations, and international bodies to enact, enforce, and oversee measures that can effectively counteract this pernicious phenomenon.