The electoral reform conundrum: How exactly?
10 June, 2023, 5:00 pm
MANY public commentators have called for the changing of Fiji’s electoral system which has been used in the 2014 and 2018 elections with extreme results for democracy, local representation and accountability.
Jioji Kotobalavu is quoted by journalist Shayal Devi (“Call for true representation in Parliament”, FT 27 May 2023) and he makes many valid points: parliamentarians should be those who received the highest votes, not those who ride on the coat-tails of their party leader; Fiji’s minorities (Rotumans, Europeans, Part-Europeans and Chinese) had no representatives in Parliament; different regions in Fiji did not know who their MPs were; and the general elections became a popularity contest between the different leaders, including that of the Opposition parties.
We might remember that SODELPA leaders Rabuka and Ro Teimumu Kepa also tried to follow similar vote gathering policies to that of Bainimarama, although with less success.
Kotobalavu could also have added that women and different regions were also not fairly represented in Parliament under the current electoral system, a critical failure.
He could have added that having one national constituency was deliberately designed to suit the planned electoral strategy of Bainimarama and Sayed-Khaiyum that all voters throughout Fiji would be encouraged to vote for the great leader (and to a lesser extent for his superman manager).
That also meant that virtually all other FijiFirst candidates (except for some canny ones) would receive pitiful numbers of votes (most less than 1000) and that of course also perversely meant that they could be kept in line.
A full account of how the Bainimarama/Sayed-Khaiyum government rigged the election results may be read in Readings 103 to 121 of Section K (Rigging the 2014 Elections) of my Vol. 3 book (Our Struggles for Democracy in Fiji), available for sale at the USP Book Centre.
Despite the validity of all these criticisms, none of the commentators have asked how exactly Fiji can lawfully go from the current system under the 2013 Constitution imposed on Fiji, to another system that did not have all the disadvantages listed by Jioji Kotobalavu and many others besides.
Could a revised system be better and have advantages that would be to the benefit of Fiji people such as some minimum guaranteed share of women in Parliament?
The obstacles to change
This article on how we change the electoral system is an extension of a previous one where I asked: What exactly is the legitimate rule of law today?
Under the 2013 Constitution, any change to it whatsoever, including that to the electoral system, must require the support of three quarters of the elected MPs and three quarters of a referendum.
Given the current numbers of FFP MPs, three quarters support in Parliament of any changed electoral system would be virtually impossible, unless the vote is done while the FFP MPs are barred from Parliament as currently.
But even then, it would be virtually impossible to get the 75 per cent support of a referendum.
There is also the possibility I raised that a high level judicial review could throw out the 2013 Constitution, which would then leave Fiji with the 1997 Constitution and its AV electoral system.
Unfortunately, the electoral system in the 1997 Constitution was not ideal either, with one weakness being the significant departure from proportionality (which the 2013 system does have).
Does the Coalition Government have an electoral system game plan before the next 2026 elections. Perhaps the Coalition Government may be thinking of simply passing their version of a new electoral system by simple majority in Parliament and simply organising the next 2026 elections under that, whether the FFP likes it or not or whether it is lawful or not.
If they don’t they better start thinking about it now and preparing the voters and the Elections Office well before that event.
In the rest of this article, I suggest what the Fiji public can think about.
What ideal electoral system?
There is no ideal electoral system in the world.
But certainly, there should be no reversion to the Alternative Vote System that was part of the 1997 Constitution as recommended by the Reeves Commission.
Even before that 1997 Constitution had been passed, and much to the annoyance of the late Dr Brij Lal (a member of the Reeves Commission and also my brother-in-law), I had pointed out the weakness of the AV system in a The Fiji Times article (“Sound Reeves Report but weak electoral system”, FT 1 November 1996) which is Reading 10 in my Volume 3 (Our Struggles for Democracy in Fiji),
As was possible in that AVY system, the lack of proportionality reduced the strength of Rabuka’s SVT to just eight MPs while decimating the NFP (and Jai Ram Reddy himself).
The Yash Ghai Commission in its 2012 draft constitution also had an improved proposal (similar to mine I give below) for an improved electoral system based on four districts with seats roughly in proportion to the population distribution then: Central (24), Western (22), Northern (9) and Eastern (5), making 60 seats altogether.
The remaining 11 seats out of the 71 MPs in Parliament were to be distributed as “compensatory” seats to ensure that all parties get proportional representation in Parliament.
These 11 would have been selected from closed party lists of preferential ordering, giving parties an opportunity to ensure that women, young etc would be guaranteed some minimum representation in Parliament.
Unfortunately, the Yash Ghai Commission draft constitution held too many dangers for Bainimarama and Sayed-Khaiyum and was trashed (see Reading 64 “Why the Ghai Draft Was Trashed” in my Vol. 3 Section H on the Yash Ghai Commission.
Narsey proposal to Yash Ghai in 2012
I had also given my electoral proposal to Yash Ghai (“Narsey Electoral Proposal to Yash Ghai”, The Fiji Times May 31, 2012, also Reading 60 in my Volume 3 Our Struggles for Democracy in Fiji.). This was based closely on NZ’s MMP system (mixed member proportional).
This proposal, which may still be relevant today, had both local constituencies (called electorates in NZ) and overall proportionality ensured through a close list of preferred candidates. There were no ethnic constituencies, although local constituencies could guarantee representation for Rotuman for instance.
Each voter would have two votes, one for the local constituency candidates, and one for the national parties, to ensure proportionality.
I had proposed 25 open constituencies (could be more) electing their local MPs by whatever system, First Past the Post (simplest) or even the complicated AV system (which I would not recommend today for Fiji). The results are in column (C) in the table below.
The second vote by all voters would give the national percentage of votes for each party (column A in the table) and entitle that party to total seats in Parliament (column B) in the table. i.e. this system would have a strong element of proportionality that the 2013 system has, and which the AV system did not have.
Given the number of seats won each party has already won in local constituencies (column C), then column D (BC) gives the number of additional MPs each party would be entitled to. These would be derived from the closed list of each party, going down the list, one by one.
These “close list” could ensure a fair distribution of women, young, ethnic minorities etc.
In essence, these closed list candidates would not have to stand in any local constituencies.
I point out in the last 50 years, many excellent candidates have offered their services to voters, but have failed to be elected.
Look at Dr John Fatiaki in the 2022 election. I have known dozens of such examples over the years.
The closed list enables each party to put at the top of their list such good candidates as qualified persons not appreciated by voters, or women or young people.
The numbers entitled to by each party (column B) may need to be tweaked here and there (minor adjustment) by the Fiji Electoral Commission, especially if many small parties are disqualified because they do not reach the threshold (say 2 per cent) or if independents win (as in the example above).
The gender conundrum
Year after year, decade after decade, women leaders (and even some men leaders) have called for more women in Parliament. But women do not get elected and their numbers seem to be fewer the louder are the voices of leaders of women organisations. Unfortunately, many women leaders refuse to put up their hands to stand for Parliament, with the exception of a few like Sashi Kiran.
But how many people think about the conundrum that with the 2013 electoral system being extremely proportional, and with women always having been half of all voters, how is it that even the women voter themselves do not vote for women candidates?
That was clear even from the 2014 and 2018 election results which were supposed to be proportional. But have you ever heard any women leaders telling off the women voters for not voting for women candidates?
Einstein is supposed to have said that it is insanity to keep doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
It could also be called stupidity; although feminists would call it “patriarchy” where even the women themselves are brainwashed into voting for male candidates who they think will serve them better. Clearly, the same system will produce the same pattern of results in the future. There must be a change.
The system I am proposing will allow voters to see from the order of candidates on the closed list whether the parties and party leaders are putting their money where
their mouths are: are they putting women up on the list?
Or are they just talking their talk?
To summarise, the system I suggest above will have the advantages of
(a) Total proportionality
(b) Local constituencies
(c) through the closed list, also guaranteeing representation of women or minority ethnic groups, but if and only if the party chooses to put such candidates towards the top of the List.
My radical proposal
The public might even want to consider whether women voters in the 25 local constituencies should be allowed to vote only for women candidates thus definitely electing 25 female MPs, fully accountable to the women voters of Fiji.
And the women voters will only have themselves to blame if these women MPs do not perform.
The male voters in these local constituencies will vote for only male candidates, giving another 25 male MPs and a total of 50 local MPs.
These local candidates could be affiliated to parties or be independents.
As before, the closed list would deliver another 25 MPs to ensure proportionality between parties, in the 75-member Parliament.
I can imagine the patriarchs and many men political leaders throwing cold water on this proposal.
Ha ha ha. So much for their wish to see more women in parliament.
Learn from NZ
This is one public policy where NZ is streets ahead of Australia.
The Fiji Times readers can go to this website to understand exactly how our system could work.
They can also go to this webpage to understand what tweaks NZ has been experimenting with after a 2012 review – no system is perfect.
I suggest that the Coalition Government invite a small team from the NZ Elections Office to make a presentation to all the political parties, the Fiji Electoral Commission and the general public.
They could also invite (and pay for) some kaiviti experienced former parliamentarians knowledgeable about
Fiji’s electoral systems and political history to make presentations, as they have been doing for two decades to the nation (through Fiji Times), the parties (SODELP, PDP, NFP) and books (Vol. 3 Our Struggles for Democracy in Fiji:
Rule of Law and Media Freedom).
It would be NZ aid money very well spent.
PROF WADAN NARSEY is one of the region’s senior economists and a regular commentator on political and economic issues in Fiji. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of The Fiji Times.