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The colorful clutter in the aftermath of Majlis Election 2024

284,663 eligible voters flocked to over 600 ballot boxes on Sunday for voting in Maldives' highly contested parliamentary election, with their hearts and minds set on electing 93 out of a record 368 candidates as lawmakers for the 20th People's Majlis.

Hanaan Hussain
24 April 2024, MVT 11:38
Parliament Election Campaign / Campaign poster / Parliament Election 2024
Hanaan Hussain
24 April 2024, MVT 11:38

The spirit of democracy has risen once again in the Maldives' capital. After a five-year hiatus that wrapped up with the Presidential Elections in September 2023, civic responsibilities and shifting the tide of governance are once again on the minds of a highly literate, socially aware and civically engaged citizenry. The star-studded roster for those who contested in Sunday's high-stakes parliamentary elections comprised of 368 candidates; some excitingly new, others tested and familiar, all lined up alongside a hugely welcome surge in women and independent candidates. With interim results now out and 75 percent of the eligible population having shown up to cast their ballots on election day, the final outcomes leave a lot of room for reflection for both candidates and citizens.

The lead-up to Majlis 2024 saw a lot of interesting press surrounding political parties, the government, and numerous potential candidates for those who were trying to keep up. The number of candidates burgeoned to the point of confusion, and ultimately, that was what we saw reflected in the campaign process that saw the islands across the Maldives flooded with billboards, banners and posters ahead of voting.

Elections season is all about rights. Conventionally, it would not be wrong to assume such a long, drawn-out voting season might have cast the shadow of election fatigue on citizens. Contesting candidates and voters all have rights enshrined within the democratic process to help them reap the sweetness that arrives every five years in Maldives. As the upbeat pulse of election day diminishes, the question of what can be done about the campaign materials that have been introduced into public spaces is an important one to raise in order for communities to return to a sense of post-vote normalcy.

Parliament Election Campaign / Campaign poster / Parliament Election 2024

Worn-out places, Worn-out faces

Yes, that's from the British band Tears for Fears. Their song, "Mad World," is patchworked from detached lyrical rides that makes the listener feel a certain type of way about the world, and is quite fitting in describing how a voter might feel towards the end of a highly-saturated campaign cycle. Citizens of Malé saw the entire island swamped in campaign paraphernalia in the hopes that someone somewhere would feel compelled to vote for a single candidate out of 368. The chances were one in a million, maybe. Every candidate put their best faces forward into the campaign materials released in order to gain those critical votes, and more importantly, their seat among the 93.

While it is not illegal for candidates to use campaign materials to make themselves more visible in a competitive election, glancing around at the state of the Malé, residents cannot help but hope a candidate's electoral right to campaign also extends to cleaning up their promotional clutter once the vote is over.

It is not unreasonable to object to the massive billboards erected on pavements designed for pedestrians, as Malé was not the world's most walkable city to begin with. The people of Malé are not wrong in having called out to candidates whose campaign materials have become a hindrance to public safety and daily life to ensure these are removed in a timely fashion. Case in point: some billboards placed in the city directly obstruct the line of sight for motorists at intersections, such as the three-arm junction at Maafannu Gadi Buru, a common site for traffic jams that is surrounded by both residential and commercial buildings.

Media Spokesperson for Malé City Council Aminath Shathufa stated in late-May that the affixation of campaign posters across the city through fastening poles into the pavement used for pedestrian travel had become increasingly common in the weeks leading up to Sunday's vote. The concerns for public safety were not unfounded. As the election neared, some candidates had their promotional materials removed by Malé City Council for being too large and violating guidelines. However, some campaign teams allege the City Council had not shared this document with candidates and representatives as a reference before removing some billboards from around the capital's busiest streets.

In addition to this, State Electric Company Ltd. (STELCO) also issued a statement in the weeks leading up to the election, noting a potential hazard as candidates reached a fever pitch in their efforts to conduct successful and visible campaigns. The press release was in relation to potential damage to the underground "interconnection" network across the Greater Malé Region due to metal poles being used by campaign teams in mounting billboards around the Sinamalé Bridge and highway stretch. Although the worst-case scenario was avoided, the risk that STELCO highlighted in their statement was very real. If anything, these are warnings that every political hopeful should keep in mind for future vote-seeking endeavors, especially if they are looking to campaign smart and have it be well received by residents in Malé City.

As the election deadline neared, the structural integrity of the campaign materials mounted around Malé City were put to the test. Billboards that were larger than ever continued to pop up along major streets and highways, stealing away ocean views from the city's residents and crowding in between buildings that were already packed insanely tight, like sardines in a can. Sometimes, all it took was a few minutes of rain and wind to take them down, much to the inconvenience of motorists, pedestrians and local businesses. Travelers who flocked to the nation's capital were left distressed and overwhelmed by the visual noise caused by so many simultaneous campaigns. Many Maldivians from islands also traveled to the capital to contribute to their campaigns of choice, with most candidates having invested in some form of campaign space in the capital to reach voters that had migrated out of their island of registry. The result was an unbelievable amount of congestion in Malé, to the point of scaring young children and tourists who could not understand the barrage of faces they were confronted with every step on the streets.

Malé: A City of Aces

There are, of course, laws that limit the amount of money a candidate is allowed to spend on their parliamentary bid. However, when the materials are being printed abroad in bulk for a fraction of the local price, it could explain the sheer volume of campaign paraphernalia that has swept through the streets of Malé and other major population centers across the country. Not to mention the online ads, which were shockingly in circulation across social media platforms throughout election day in a questionable subversion of electoral guidelines.

Parliament Election Campaign / Campaign poster / Parliament Election 2024

While hundreds of candidates vied for the attention of an audience, a truly memorable campaign would arguably be one that has its bases covered even after the end of the vote. Despite not having won their respective election bids for the Galolhu Uthuru constituency, parliamentary candidates Aminath Nadira and Eva Abdulla are the only ones that have announced their intentions to begin cleaning up their campaign materials from Malé City. Both candidates have asked their supporters to flag anything that might be missed as their teams remove posters and billboards erected around the city during the week following the vote.

The exemplary leadership on display by these women candidates from Galolhu Uthuru is very welcome. Surely, many citizens will spend the next few days wondering if candidates from their constituencies would be able to show such proactive leadership. The sheer volume of campaign materials in Malé might be overwhelming as a whole, but there are some essential lessons to be learned from Eva and Nadira's approach to taking down their campaign materials.

It is not the responsibility of an individual citizen to wake up one morning with the mission of tearing down every poster and billboard they find. In fact, it is a task that lies with the candidates themselves, and the teams that have supported them through their campaigns and past the vote on election day. Campaign teams should not be allowed to disappear or dissolve until they are able to fully support their candidates in removing promotional materials placed around the city by the teams at their candidate's request.

When is the right time to do this? For a city as busy and crowded as Malé, the correct answer is now, or at least as soon as possible now that the excitement of the vote and subsequent celebrations have begun to fade. Best to approach this logistically challenging endeavor while the energy of election season still ignites people towards a call to action, while they might still be motivated to go outside and contribute to an island-wide clean up that will not do much besides adding to a collective sense of peace and quiet when it's all said and done.

Answering questions posed by The Edition on Tuesday, the Elections Commission (EC) revealed that candidates would have a period of 10 days following the date of publication of final election results to clean up promotional materials from their campaign.

EC also revealed that citizens can file complaints at the end of the 10-day window regarding campaign materials that are left visible in public spaces. Citizens can direct their reporting to EC's Complaints Bureau, Malé City Council and Maldives Police Service (MPS) if candidates fail to remove their promotional materials 10 days after the publication of final results for the parliamentary election.

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