Reflecting on the 2014 General Election

Rear Admiral (Ret) Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama’s FijiFirst party has won an overwhelming majority at the 2014 election.

The result has come as a severe shock to many of the other parties, and their supporters. To those of us who observed the 1999, 2001 and 2006 elections, the reaction is a familiar one. In both 2001 and 2006, and in many of Fiji’s previous elections, defeated politicians invariably cried foul.

In 1999, they could legitimately claim that the electoral system had greatly influenced the overall outcome.

Small-scale irregularities occur at all elections, not only in Fiji but also around the world. Many nations have a history of overt ballot-rigging, but no election in Fiji’s history has been confirmed as corrupted in this way, though there were at times intense controversies about this – particularly after the 1982 polls.

Claims of fraud have tended to evaporate after the passage of time, with even the accusers withdrawing their allegations in retrospect. No doubt there were administrative complications, and irregularities pertaining to the management of the election last week in Fiji, whether admitted publicly or not. The question is whether these were sufficiently large to influence the overall result?

Although Fiji’s 2014 use of a single nationwide constituency makes it difficult to assess the veracity of the election results, the fact that counting is done in 2025 polling stations potentially commands confidence.

With results being released at this level, it should be easy for communities to assess the accuracy of outcomes. So, when those detailed results surface, it is up to those making allegations of irregularities to establish exactly where these made a difference.

Is it unbelievable that FijiFirst could have won around 60 per cent of the national vote? And if they did so, how was this victory constructed? In one sense, this was Fiji’s first ever election in which voting patterns transcended ethnic lines.

The only other election that came close was in 1972 when Ratu Mara’s solidly indigenous Fijian-backed Alliance Party obtained 25 per cent of the Fiji-Indian vote.

On the other hand, 2014 voting patterns continued to respond to relatively homogenous ethnic views, at least in some communities.

Fiji-Indians have switched fairly solidly from supporting the Fiji Labour Party to backing FijiFirst. The small but politically influential and business savvy European and part-European communities were also fairly solidly pro-Bainimarama, but they have little voting power.

FijiFirst’s victory depended on the schism that emerged in the indigenous Fijian community. With ethnic Fijians now comprising around 60 per cent of the population, their voting power is sufficient to win any election. But towards half of indigenous Fijians appear to have backed FijiFirst.

This would not have been the case if election had occurred a few years ago, when indigenous hostility to government was immense. When the election promised for early 2009 were cancelled, this was obviously because of an anticipated defeat at the hands of indigenous voters. Since then, things have changed.

Although Rear Admiral (Ret) Bainimarama dismisses “old” and “corrupt” ethnic Fijian politicians as “losers”, he has gone to great lengths to allay indigenous voters’ concerns.

Road-building projects through solidly ethnic Fijian areas, such as the tarsealed King’s Rd and the road to inland Naitasiri have attracted Fijian support, as have pay rises for civil servants, free bus fares for school children and subsidised primary education.

Many ethnic Fijians see Rear Admiral (Ret) Bainimarama as an indigenous leader, who has succeeded in dominating the national stage where others failed.

Some have suggested that this support for FijiFirst was influenced by the “fear factor”, and the very real threat that an outcome other than victory for FijiFirst would entail political instability.

In a closely fought election, that might have made the difference, but the scale of FijiFirst’s victory suggests that there has probably been more support all along for Rear Admiral (Ret) Bainimarama than many envisaged.

There has also been a surge in indigenous backing for the government accompanying the economic recovery of the past few years.

The main opposition party, SODELPA, chose to campaign – as Laisenia Qarase did in 2001 and 2006 — by appealing mainly to the indigenous Fijian community on issues such as hostility to the dissolution of the Great Council of Chiefs and threats to indigenous Fijian land ownership.

These issues struck a chord among older ethnic Fijian voters, but they carried little weight among the younger generation. With the voting age reduced to 18, these voters held sway in 2014.

Although SODELPA did have some youth support, there can be little doubt that the large cohort of first-time voters mostly backed FijiFirst.

The low level of invalid voting should come as no surprise. Under Fiji’s previous system, high levels of invalid voting were caused by the complex split format ballot paper, with above and below-the-line segments.

This time around, the ballot paper was completely different. It was easy to complete. It allowed a tick, cross or circle. So the likely problem would have been errors in voting, not invalid voting.

The small numbers of invalid ballots announced were probably mainly ballots marked with more than one tick, cross or circle. It is easy to see just how many errors in completing the ballot paper there were. Rear Admiral Bainimarama’s number was 279.

The easiest error was to mark instead 297. Candidate number 297 was the People’s Democratic Party’s Ilaijia Vuniyayawa, who topped his party’s list, defeating even Felix Anthony and Lynda Tabuya.

The design of the new electoral system has generated some difficulties, not arising primarily from its delivery of proportionality between party seat and vote shares, but because of the obscure ballot paper design, the threshold, and the use of a single national constituency.

A multiple constituency model would enable the ballot paper to figure names and party symbols, but the provision prohibiting this is entrenched in the 2013 Constitution, and thus requires a super-majority for removal.

Fiji’s electoral system and associated constitutional arrangements are peculiar. Some provisions greatly encourage strong political parties, such as the 5 per cent threshold (eliminating smaller parties) and the provision ensuring that MPs who are expelled from parties lose their seats.

Other provisions greatly weaken political parties, such as the appearance only of candidates with no party symbols on the ballot paper.

More usually, open list proportional representation systems either allow a party vote, as well as a candidate vote, or at least show the candidates organised into party lists.

Fiji’s system is a latent open list system because the fact that the voter is primarily voting for a party is nowhere obvious.

In stronger democracies than Fiji, after an election the new prime minister makes a magnanimous speech recognising or acknowledging the concerns of those who voted for the opposition, and promising to represent the interests of not only those who voted for him or her, but also those who did not.

With humility, the leader of the largest unsuccessful party acknowledges the defeat, and in so doing charts a course for building a new stronger opposition over the years ahead.

Doing so encourages confidence in parliamentary democracy, and sets the pattern for the struggles of the years to come.

* Jon Fraenkel is a Professor of Comparative Politics at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of The Fiji Times.