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'Elective dictatorship'

Neleesh Gounder
Saturday, May 07, 2016

ONE way to interpret Richard Naidu's opinion piece titled True Democracy and Cost of Credit (The Fiji Times, 30/04) is that our political culture seems dysfunctional and disrespected. Using the recent passing of the Fair Reporting of Credit Act by Parliament in just three days, the article laments lack of consultation normally required in such circumstances.

At the same time, it is also possible to argue that politics in Fiji is more transparent now than ever before. Parliamentary proceedings are televised live and more people have access to electricity and a television. Information technology has made it much easier to watch proceedings of Parliament live. Government information is available online and the activities and statements of the politicians are subject to unrelenting social media scrutiny.

However, this is at best a partial judgment as it is an inadequate explanation for the current political landscape. What could then explain this increasingly dysfunctional and disrespected political system? I explore an idea that could possibly explain the current political predicament.

Elective dictatorship

As in other democracies, the 2013 Constitution of Fiji provides for three separate arms of government — the legislature (Parliament), the executive and the judiciary. It is also common knowledge that Bills are introduced and passed into law because the Government commands a majority in the House. That is an essential principle of democracy and no one denies that.

However, what is important to the story here is how the proper extent of that authority is used or misused.

What about the objective merits of the Bills? The debate in the legislature should be able to throw light on both the merits as well as the demerits of the Bills. Discussion with the public and the stakeholders is also crucial to supplement parliamentary debate.

However, what we have witnessed is a Bill introduced at short notice and rushed through the parliamentary proceedings. This process is reminiscent of an elective dictatorship, a term arguably attributed to Giuseppe Garibaldi but made popular by Lord Hailsham during a lecture at the BBC 40 years ago.

In particular, a government uses its majority to sway parliamentary systems and processes in terms of the passage of Bills through the legislature. It is a belief that a government can "do anything it wants". It's a mentality based on unconstrained executive authority.

The predicament thus shows the control of government over the legislative process resulting in inadequate opposition and public scrutiny leading to the potential for serious abuse of pieces of legislation. The implication of this, of course, is a lack of robust debate and denying due diligence expected of an effective legislature.

Source of this

elective dictatorship

Why are we in this state today?

First, it is the political culture today which seems to rely on the exaggeration of democratic legitimacy. It seems there is a belief by Government that it is empowered through its democratic mandate to overrule all fonts of authority and oversight processes.

This conviction in democratic legitimacy has ended up creating an imbalance of power between the Government and Opposition in the legislature that has taken us down this road towards elective dictatorship.

Second, there seems to be a growing norm that elected leaders are legitimately empowered to change systems and processes without the need for stakeholder consultation. Several policy blunders within Ministry of Education will suffice here. This norm has also led to an unwillingness of the Government to respect the role of the civil service. So, what it boils down to is the existence of a leader of the executive arm claiming to implement the wishes of the people.

Only the executive is seen as holding legitimate political power. Others are regarded as politically illegitimate. Some fraction of this norm could have been fostered by the 2013 Constitution, the product mainly to legalise power rather than careful design.

Third, Government is seen as a continuation of the regime which existed for eight years between 2006 coup and 2014 election. Without parliamentary democracy, laws were enacted through decrees without much debate and consultation. Majority of the decrees enacted between December 5, 2006 and October 6, 2014 are preserved as laws under section 173 of the 2013 Constitution. It appears that the modus operandi in terms of law making systems and processes has continued in essence after the 2014 election.

Recent changes to parliamentary systems and processes confirm these points, such as changes related to:

p Change in Standing Orders which have removed the provision that required chairman of Public Accounts Committee to be from the Opposition and changes its TOR (terms of reference) which makes it basically useless in terms of scrutiny of the auditor-general's reports.

p Requirement that 40 per cent of MPs to vote for a public petition to be forwarded to the relevant Standing Committee (Opposition MPs make up 36 per cent of all MPs in parliament).

p Reducing number of annual parliamentary sittings from seven to four.

Additional remarks

This phenomenon is not entirely reclusive to the recent political scenario but dates back to the Fiji Labour Party led government in 1999. The rhetoric is not new but there is categorical resurgence.

This imbalance is also not unique to Fiji but recent developments show this imbalance of power is growing in Fiji and might be harmful to democratic governance here.

The frustration of the Opposition seems to lie in the reality rather than in the perception of how an effective democracy is supposed to function. It is important for the Government to realise that the Opposition can also make a contribution towards the running of the country by contributing its own ideas which demonstrate how their policies might have achieved better results.

In a genuine democracy, the Opposition is as important as the Government. While the Government has the right to govern the Opposition has the right to be heard. That is why a free press, adequate resources and open and transparent parliamentary process is vital for a meaningful and functioning democracy.

* These are the views of the author, and not of The Fiji Times or of USP where he is employed.

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