Closer to democracy

There is hope as well as cynicism in Fiji as the multiracial nation goes to the polls to elect a new, more representative, 50-member National Assembly after experiencing several coups and spells of military rule.

Published : Sep 17, 2014 12:30 IST

Interim Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama at an event in Auckland, New Zealand, on August 9.

Interim Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama at an event in Auckland, New Zealand, on August 9.

FIJI will elect a democratic government on September 17, eight years after its last elected government was overthrown in a bloodless military coup in 2006. The long-awaited election is taking place under a new Constitution, with a new scheme of voting under a proportional representation system for the 50-member National Assembly. It will be held on the basis of “one person, one vote, one value”, according to the Fijian Elections Office (FEO).

Frank Bainimarama, the military commander, seized power in 2006 following differences with the elected Prime Minister, Laisenia Qarase, and abrogated the Constitution. The military regime initiated the process of drafting a new Constitution by forming a committee of experts and initiating a long exercise of public consultations. It rejected the draft Constitution and promulgated a slightly changed version in September 2013.

The 2013 Constitution did away with Fiji’s race-based electoral system which was part of the Constitution adopted in 1970 when Fiji gained independence from British rule. The county’s multiracial population comprises indigenous Fijians (56 per cent), people with Indian ancestry (37 per cent; they are descendents of Indian workers brought to Fiji over a century ago), people of European descent, and other Pacific islanders. Fiji has seen the overthrow of three elected governments in the past 27 years. The first two were ousted by radical ethnic Fijians who claimed political primacy for the original people of the islands and opposed what were called Indian-dominated governments. The third coup had nothing to do with political rivalry between indigenous Fijians and ethnic Indians.

The 1970 Constitution mandated an equal number of seats for indigenous Fijians and ethnic Indians, though ethnic Indians outnumbered Fijians at that time. Steady migration of Indians after the series of coups has brought down their numbers in the past three decades. Under the new Constitution, there will be no race-based seats or geographically delineated constituencies. People will vote on a single ballot listing the names of all candidates. The new Constitution gives equal rights to indigenous Fijians and Indians and terms all Fiji nationals as Fijians instead of identifying them by race.

Fiji’s move towards the September elections gained an impetus after Bainimarama stepped down as the commander of the Fiji Armed Forces in March this year, while remaining the head of the interim government. He set up a political party called Fiji First and announced his intention to contest the elections. He has been campaigning vigorously since then, showcasing his various achievements, and even travelling to Australia and New Zealand to address the Fijian diaspora, with mixed results. While campaigning abroad, Bainimarama told gatherings of expatriates that he had brought in a regime that was not based on race. Though security forces kept protesters away from the venue, Bainimarama was heckled at some of the meetings.

Campaigning is in full swing, but opposition parties and political activists have expressed apprehensions about a free and fair election. The media operate under stringent regulations promulgated by the military regime and there is a seven-day ban on media coverage of the elections immediately before polling day. In a recent report, Amnesty International criticised Bainimarama for creating a “climate of fear”, as human rights defenders, journalists and trade union leaders continue to face harassment. “Restrictions on the freedom of expression, assembly and association in Fiji should be lifted and acts of intimidation and harassment against government critics and peaceful activists must stop,” the report said.

Civil society organisations and student activists have not been allowed to set up election observer groups, and human rights groups have not been allowed to campaign in the elections. However, the government has invited election observers from a select group of countries. It has signed an agreement for a Multinational Observer Group which will be co-led by Australia, India, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia and will include 10 other countries: Israel, South Africa, Brazil, Russia, Turkey, Japan, South Korea, Iran, the United Kingdom and New Zealand. According to the agreement, the multinational group will observe and evaluate the voting and counting processes, resolution of disputes and “assess whether the voter process of the FEO facilitated and assisted the Fijian voters to exercise their rights to freely vote and whether the outcome of the 2014 Fijian general election broadly represented the will of Fijian voters”.

A disagreement between the Supervisor of Elections and the Electoral Commission on the time when the Commission was to submit the names of eligible candidates was taken to the court. When the Supervisor of Elections, Mohammed Saneem, conducted a public draw to assign numbers to the different candidates, the Electoral Commission refused to attend the draw, but the court ruled in the Supervisor’s favour, asking him to continue the electoral process.

Good response

Despite the fears expressed by some sections, there is great interest in Fiji in the elections, which can be gauged by the success of the voter enrolment programme. Over 580,000 persons registered as voters: this constitutes almost 90 per cent of all those eligible to vote.

The most significant aspect of the election is that votes will be cast in favour of individuals, without any party affiliations. The election to the 50-member House will be on a single-constituency, open-list proportional representation system depending on the total votes received by a party. There is a 5 per cent threshold for each party to be part of the proportional representational list.

As the election campaign gathered momentum, a voter education programme was undertaken to explain the voting procedure. There will be a single ballot paper for all the 50 seats in the National Assembly. It will be a large sheet of paper with 249 randomly mixed numbers printed on a grid without any names or party symbols to identify them. A board outside the polling station will list the names of the candidates and the numbers assigned to them. Voters will need to consult the board and memorise the number assigned to their candidates, as they will not be allowed to take any aide-memoires inside the polling booths. Those who cannot read will be assisted by polling officers to ascertain the number of the candidate they wish to vote for. Polling will take place on September 17, but early ballots for overseas citizens, voters on remote islands and those engaged in essential services, such as policemen, bus drivers and doctors on duty, began from September 3.

Seven approved political parties are contesting the election. All political parties were directed to register themselves afresh with the Registrar of Political Parties under new conditions, which included a total membership of at least 5,000 persons with a specified number from each of the four divisions of Fiji. The seven parties that were registered are Bainimarama’s Fiji First Party, the Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA), the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the National Federation Party (NFP), the Fiji Labour Party (FLP), the One Fiji Party and the Fiji United Freedom Party. The SODELPA is backed by former Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase. The party has promised to reverse many of the Bainimarama government’s actions and to bring back the Great Council of Chiefs, the high body of the indigenous Fijian tribal chiefs that Bainimarama had abolished. The party wants to make Fiji a Christian state with affirmative action policies for ethnic Fijians and has promised to consider reviving the 1970 Constitution.

Two former Prime Ministers, Mahendra Chaudhry, Fiji’s first Premier of Indian origin who was deposed in 2000, and Laisenia Qarase, who replaced him and was ousted in the 2006 coup, have been barred from contesting the election as a result of convictions in two cases. Qarase was convicted of abuse of official position. Chaudhry, who was convicted of violating foreign currency regulations, has filed an appeal in a higher court.

The People’s Democratic Party opposes the curtailing of workers’ rights in some sectors, including tourism, one of Fiji’s main revenue earners. The National Federation Party supports farmers’ rights and has called for 99-year leases for agricultural land. The One Fiji Party received its registration after the Electoral Commission held that its name was different enough from the Fiji First Party, but asked for changes in its symbol as it was too similar to Fiji First’s logo.

The re-registration of political parties and the condition that parties should have members spread throughout Fiji have had the significant result of making the parties multiethnic in nature. That will help reducing the ethnicity-based appeals that some political parties resorted to in earlier elections. The SODELPA, however, is largely indigenous Fijian in character. This election has brought another change: the number of women candidates fielded by the political parties has increased.

Four of the seven political parties are headed by women: the People’s Democratic Party, the Fiji First Party, the National Federation Party and the Fiji Labour Party. Out of the 249 approved candidates, 44 are women; this is a sharp increase compared with the last election in 2006, when there were only 30 women in a total 338 candidates. Eight of them were elected to the short-lived Parliament. The Fiji First Party, the People’s Democratic Party and the National Federation Party have fielded nine women each. The women candidates are lawyers, academics, former civil servants or entrepreneurs.

There is hope and cynicism about the elections, as well as some confusion. The Electoral Decree allows for votes to be cast early in remote locations or in places where there are not enough voters for the establishment of a polling station. As early voting started on September 3, there was confusion among voters who believed that it was a mock voting exercise.

Neutral stance

Fiji’s Army chief, Brigadier General Mosese Tikoitoga, has said that the military will accept the outcome of the election, adding that it does not favour any individual or political party. Advising those who had not read the Constitution to familiarise themselves with it, he said: “We will take our role in the Constitution seriously and we will continue to uphold that role for the sake of upholding stability and maintaining law and order in our nation.” Even as the campaigning continues, the Fijian authorities have to deal with the difficult situation of 45 Fijian United Nations peacekeepers who have been taken hostage at the Golan Heights in Syria by the Islamic State (I.S.).

Interim Prime Minister Bainimarama has declared that he will accept the outcome of the election. With Fiji’s history of coups, there is apprehension whether the election can throw up a stable government. But the people clearly desire an end to the authoritarian regime and want an elected government.

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