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Where is the level playing field

Professor Wadan Narsey
Saturday, May 20, 2017

THE rugby-mad Fiji public would be thoroughly disgusted if one team insisted on appointing the referees (Fiji Electoral Commission and Supervisor of Elections), the coach (Solicitor-General), made the rules and even changed the rules as the game went on. I believe that was the reality with the 2014 election and is likely to be the same unless the Fiji public calls for changes to be made in the laws that are being created and applied by the Bainimarama Government without any input from the Opposition parties.

Many of these unfair aspects and the need for changes were pointed out, very mildly and diplomatically, by the Multinational Observer Group for the 2014 election, and some even pointed out in the annual report of the FEC for 2014, 2015 and 2016.

There may have been the need for mildness and diplomacy in 2014 when elections were being held after eight years of military rule and many understandably doubted they would go ahead. But that era is gone now and the public needs to wake up and raise their voices if they want a fair game with Opposition political parties and candidates playing on a "level playing field".

Fiji Electoral Commission

and Supervisor of Elections

The referees for the 2018 election, the Fiji Electoral Commission (FEC) and the Supervisor of Elections (SOE) have been appointed by the Bainimarama Government, without any input from the Opposition parties, with one Opposition representative (lawyer Richard Naidu) resigning in frustration at the lack of consultation by the Bainimarama Government representatives.

The FEC is chaired by Suresh Chandra, its other members being Simione Ratabacaca Naiduki, Margot Marie Jenkins, Graham Bruce Southwick, Jawahar Lal, Kavita Raniga and Ratu Paula Halaiwalu.

The public can only assume (unless proven otherwise in due course) that these commissioners will fulfil their responsibilities with honesty, integrity and transparency.

But the FEC chairman has already stated that the FEC will "apply the law as it is, and not as it should be". In other words the FEC will apply the "rules of the game" whether they are fair to Opposition parties or not.

Even then, the FEC has a most daunting task to make the elections free and fair to all parties and all voters, given that the electoral regulations were unilaterally imposed on Fiji by the military Bainimarama Government via the 2013 Constitution.

This article suggests to Fiji voters, political parties and potential candidates where the "rules of the game" must be changed before the next election, if the 2018 election is at all to be fair to all candidates and their supporters throughout the country.

Given their track record in Parliament, the Bainimarama Government and their MPs will probably resist any calls for changes, given that they probably think that the system has already "worked for them". Some changes may even be in the interest of FijiFirst party candidates and Bainimarama himself.

FFP candidates' new strategy

By now, most FFP members of Parliament have realised that they are lucky to be in Parliament having followed the 2014 FFP strategy of asking their supporters to vote for the leader and not themselves personally.

Many failed because their personal votes left them way down the list of votes received and below the cutoff point for the FFP proportional share of the 50 seats.

FFP candidates will not be so silly in the 2018 election.

I predict Bainimarama's personal vote will go down significantly while that going to the other FFP candidates and Opposition candidates will increase from that in the 2014 election.

Refusal by the Bainimarama Government to respond constructively to clearly reasonable calls for electoral reform by Opposition parties and the concerned public will leave them no option but to agitate for the complete rejection of the 2013 Constitution and its imposed electoral system, and the rejection of all immunity provisions that protect many in the Bainimarama Government.

The following are some of the issues for urgent reform.

Appointment of the referees:

FEC and Supervisor of Elections

While the Opposition parties have no hand in the appointment of the FEC or the SOE, the 2014 annual report of the FEC pointed out that they also did not have any hand in the appointment of Mohammed Saneem as Supervisor of Elections.

The report points out (p14) that while they were considering the applicants, "The Attorney-General as Minister for Elections advised the commissioners that the overseas applicants who had applied for the position were either not suitable or now not available due to the passage of time and the Minister of Elections submitted the name of Mr Mohammed Saneem".

Unfortunately, the FEC did not point out that firstly, it was not appropriate for the A-G to decide who was suitable and who was not, and secondly, the A-G's appointment of Mr Saneem as SOE was totally unfair as the A-G was also the secretary of the FijiFirst party contesting the elections.

The Fiji public needs to point out that one elections team captain cannot be allowed to appoint the referee, who Opposition parties cannot trust, as it indeed turned out.

Supervisor

of Elections

While the 2013 Constitution states that "the Supervisor of Elections must comply with any directions that the Electoral Commission gives him" and this was verified by an Appeals Court judgment, Mr Saneem refused to abide by the FEC direction in very important decisions.

The Appeals Court ruled Mr Saneem was wrong to allow a FijiFirst candidate (now a minister in the Bainimarama Government) who the FEC had disallowed; and wrong to disallow Opposition candidates who the FEC had approved.

Yet, despite that Appeals Court judgment, Mr Saneem allowed the minister to continue in Parliament, making a mockery of the law, while other Opposition MPs have been excluded from Parliament by the Speaker and committees far inferior to the laws of Fiji.

The Opposition parties must nominate their representatives to the FEC.

The FEC must insist that there be a new Supervisor of Elections appointed by them, and answerable to them only, and definitely not to the A-G who is the secretary of the political party which currently forms government.

Party registration

The regulations require that for a political party to be registered it must submit a schedule setting out the names, addresses, signatures and voter IDs of 5000 members, of the proposed political party, with 2000 from the Central Division, 1750 from the Western Division, 1000 from the Northern Division and 250 from the Eastern Division.

The MOG mildly noted "the large number of signatures required (5000) within such a short period for existing parties (28 days) set Fiji apart from the standard practice internationally".

But anyone with common sense would say that this was utterly unfair for the following reasons:

Why require such a massive number of voters to declare openly that they support a particular party: it goes against all principles of confidentiality and given the climate of fear that existed then and now.

Demanding this number of signing voters was ridiculous given that the 2014 election results indicate clearly that only one candidate out of all the candidates would have been able to satisfy these requirements, while most of the FFP MPs could not even obtain 5000 votes.

How ridiculous that the law requires signing voters to be distributed in the four divisions when actual voting was to be counted in one national constituency. This clearly denies voters of particular regions to have their own representative in Parliament.

How unfair to the iTaukei culture and language that the political parties must only have English names and not indigenous Fijian names.

5 per cent threshold

Yes, the current electoral system does have the advantage of being roughly proportional and in a strictly proportional system and each of the 50 seats (now 51) in Parliament would represent roughly 2 per cent of the votes cast, or roughly 10,000 votes.

But the electoral regulations stipulate that parties and independent candidates must obtain a minimum of 5 per cent of the votes cast or a massive 27,000 votes, in order to be eligible to be elected into Parliament.

This is grossly unfair to small parties and Independents, and all voters who vote for them.

1. The election results showed clearly that all the votes received by Independents and small parties (except NFP) were made worthless, ie about 36,000 voters had their votes made worthless. It gave the lie to the propaganda of "1 person = 1 vote = 1 value".

2. Small regional constituencies which would previously have been able to elect their own Independent candidate to Parliament were no longer be able to do so, unless their candidate stood for some large party with national support.

3. The 2014 Election results showed that with Bainimarama getting 200,000 votes, he took into Parliament riding on his back, a large number of candidates with less than 1000 votes each.

In fact 20 of the least popular FijiFirst MPs in Parliament today, together received less than 27,000 votes. Yet the "laws" required Independents and small parties to get 27,000 votes.

The threshold, if there is to be one, must be reduced to 2 per cent.

Constituencies

Numerous members of the public and political parties have called for a return to constituencies so that groups of voters around the country can contribute to choosing their own representative in Parliament to address their needs.

Having local constituencies does not mean a rejection of the principle of proportionality. A clearly workable system had been suggested and demonstrated to the Yash Ghai Commission, with local constituencies, and a Closed List system (instead of the current Open List system) which would also allow a guarantee of a number of women in Parliament.

The leader of the FFP (Bainimarama) might wish to note that if there were constituencies (whatever number more than one) for the 2018 Election, it would not be possible to fairly compare his personal support in 2018 compared with the massive number he received in 2014.








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