Last September’s presidential elections in the Maldives were conducted amidst uncertainty and fear.
The previous five-years of authoritarian rule under President Abdulla Yameen provided a bleak benchmark. His administration had overseen an unprecedented derogation of fundamental human rights, a clampdown on political opposition, the enactment of draconian legislation and a closing of civil society space.
Yet the elections also inspired hope and raised expectations for anti-corruption progress.
At the polls, citizens voted to reject authoritarianism, corruption and curtailment of rights by voting for new leadership.
More recently, during April’s parliamentary elections, citizens turned out to vote in mass to make their voices heard a second time. As a result, new members were voted into Parliament through a transparent, peaceful and generally well-administered election process.
In the coming months, these new members of Parliament will have their work cut out for them to deliver on their anti-corruption promises.
This year’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) showed a strong link between the depth of democracy and a clean government. Countries with strong democratic institutions, like an independent judiciary, or those with other checks on political power, tend to score better in the CPI. With a score of 31 out of 100, Maldives falls substantially below the global average (43/100) and the scores of similar small countries in the Asia Pacific region, such as Bhutan (68) and Brunei (63).
Maldives’ poor score combined with recent corruption scandals, including evidence of high-level government officials embezzling at least US$79 million in funds as revealed by an investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), earned the Maldives a spot as a ‘country to watch’ on this year’s CPI.
Top 10 anti-corruption commitments in the first 100 days
President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih put anti-corruption front and centre during his inaugural address to the nation. After the swearing in, the President announced an ambitious 100-day programme that included several anti-corruption pledges from his administration. Some top commitments include:
1) Stop officials taking bribes related to expatriate quotas and other administrative processes involving migrant workers.
2) Send the whistleblower protection bill to Parliament.
3) Formulate a committee to investigate cases of grand corruption and money laundering.
4) Send a bill criminalizing illicit enrichment to Parliament.
5) Require all public officials and their families, including government ministries, public companies and independent institutions to declare their assets.
6) Develop a public platform to facilitate the reporting of cases of corruption.
7) Launch a campaign focused on zero tolerance to corruption.
8) Amend legislation to facilitate the independence and non-partisan functioning of institutions.
9) Conduct an anti-corruption and good governance training for all elected and appointed state officials.
10) Amend the Anti-Corruption Act to ensure that both the giving and receiving of bribes qualifies as a serious offence.
To help inform the commitments above, Transparency International Maldives (TI-Maldives) submitted recommendations as part of a good governance and anti-corruption agenda in October 2018. To a large extent, the anti-corruption commitments issued by the new government were drawn from this agenda.
Recommendations from TI-Maldives
Other important commitments
In addition to specific anti-corruption commitments, the new government also pledged to improve good governance and human rights within the first 100 days. These commitments include beginning to ensure redress and justice for all victims of torture, murder, enforced disappearance, imprisonment and forced exile, as well as for victims who had properties seized or destroyed.
Renewed hope for anti-corruption, democracy and good governance
Undoubtedly, the commitments made by the new administration have renewed citizens’ hope for democracy and clean governance. The willingness of the government to work with and respond to the recommendations of civil society groups, including TI-Maldives, is a welcome change from the previous five years.
Is the government delivering?
As part of the government’s effort to make good on its 100-day agenda, TI-Maldives was invited to conduct a series of training for senior government officials. In February 2019, we conducted anti-corruption and good governance training for cabinet ministers, state ministers, deputy ministers and heads of independent institutions.
Government officials also proactively sought the advice of TI-Maldives on corruption-related issues, in particular, advice on implementing access to information policies and strengthening procurement practices, although the extent of implementation is yet to be determined. In addition, TI-Maldives had an opportunity to work on an associations bill, which is based on a bill we drafted in 2014 to deregulate civic space and assist with the drafting and submission of a whistleblower protection bill, which was both parts of the 100-day agenda.
The government is making progress towards its commitments, including publication of the declaration of assets of senior public officials and revocation of anti-democratic laws and introduction of the legislature to protect whistleblowers. While these are good first steps, immediate systemic reforms are required to combat corruption effectively.
Despite some positive strides, the deep roots of corruption within the political and accountability institutions of the state present significant challenges in the fight against corruption. This is particularly evident in cases of grand corruption.
For example, the Anti-Corruption Commission recently released a report which showed the complicity of public officials and politicians across political parties in embezzling US$79 million from Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Company (MMPRC).
More recently, in response to TI-Maldives’ efforts to increase political accountability such as publication of MPs’ voting details, some public officials have lashed out on social media.
This type of reaction is symptomatic of a lack of understanding of the role of civil society in holding the state accountable. No government should expect civil society to afford it any leeway on anti-corruption, particularly when these efforts contradict earlier promises and commitments. Our role as civil society is to advocate and push the government in a constructive way and ensure they make good on their commitments.
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