THE REEVES REPORT: sound principles but weak advice on the electoral system
[The Fiji Times, 1 and 2 November 1996]
Part I : The problems
The Report of the Constitution Review Commission is a comprehensive, thought-provoking document, dealing with a wide range of crucial constitutional issues that need thorough public discussion.
The Report does not deserve to be summarily rejected (as is being done by some groups) merely because they do not like some element. Contrary to what the Report claims, all the recommendations are not inevitably linked and the Report does not have to be accepted (or rejected) in its entirety.
This article focuses, somewhat critically, on only one, albeit important issue- the electoral system and the voting method being recommended, the Alternative Vote (AV) system.
I believe that the Alternative Vote system, while having some advantages over the current system, will not eliminate major weaknesses existing currently.
The CRC Report, while stating the right principles and objectives, contradicts itself by totally rejecting any element of Proportional Representation (PR) system, which does promise many important benefits.
It is possible, however, through a minor amendment to the current recommendations, to significantly improve on the recommended system.
Furthermore, the ultimate objective of good government may, in the case ofFiji, require an alternative to the “winner takes all” electoral system being recommended by the CRC.
The CRC is recommending 25 reserved communal seats (12 for Fijians, 10 for Indo-Fijians, 2 for Generals and 1 for Rotumans), and 45 “open” seats in 15 three-member constituencies. The communal seats, as currently, required voters to vote for candidates of the same ethnicity. The “open” seats may have candidates of any ethnicity, being voted for by all voters.
The “open seats” are indeed a major improvement on the existing system, in that it will encourage parties to field multi-ethnic candidates, candidates to address multi-ethnic interests, and voters to vote for candidates of other ethnicity. Readers may refer to the previous Fiji Times articles I wrote on the subject, pointing out some of the weaknesses in the existing electoral system.
Unfortunately, it also seems that the Alternative Vote system recommended by the CRC will still not address some of the major weaknesses that exist currently.
The CRC’s AV System
The CRC considered various voting systems: the “First Past the Post” (FPP), the Single Transferable Vote” (STV), “Proportional Representation” (PR), and the “Alternative Vote” (AV) system.
The CRC rejected the first three systems and opted for the Alternative Vote (AV) system.
Under the AV system, in each constituency, voters must express preferences for at least 75 percent of all the candidates (under the line), or choose a Party above the line. If candidates do not have the required minimum 50 percent (plus 1) of the votes, the AV system will keep eliminating the weakest candidates, with their votes being passed on to the next candidates preferred by their voters, until there were the required number of candidates each with more than 50 percent of the votes.
The “AV” system is a little better than the FPP system, but not much. However, the CRC is quite unrealistic in some of the advantages it alleges for the AV system, while having major weaknesses.
Most of the CRC’s expected advantages are not likely to eventuate, given the hard realities ofFiji’s politics, party behaviour, electoral boundaries, voter compositions and voter inclinations. The weaknesses are almost certain to eventuate.
Unhealthy Dependence on Electoral Commission
While the CRC thought that reasonably heterogeneous constituencies are quite possible, it will in fact be impossible to have totally heterogeneous communities in each constituency, given the geographical distribution of communities and actual physical boundaries.
The reality is that most constituencies will have a majority of voters supporting one party, and significant minorities, especially in the large 3-member constituencies. Strangely, the CRC itself expected that there would likely be a range of 20% to 80% voting blocks within the constituencies.
Under the AV system, significant minority party votes will be “lost” within large constituencies and have no national impact, depending on where electoral boundaries are set.
The Electoral Boundaries Commission, through its decisions on boundaries could therefore significantly affect national outcomes. Given the representation on the Boundaries Commission, there will always be pressure to have electoral boundaries that do not harm the dominant parties.
Smaller parties are extremely unlikely to receive justice, while even major parties may lose.
Marginalisation of Minority Parties?
The CRC Report states (Section 10.80) that the voting system “should ensure that parties, candidates and members of Parliament are responsive to minority groups and special interests”.
However, the reality is that the AV system will not ensure that minority interests are represented in Parliament (which the CRC admits as well!).
Under the AV system, the first preference votes cast for losing candidates would be totally lost for their parties.
Indeed, the CRC’s recommendation that constituency boundaries should be heterogenous, would worsen the problem. Minority parties, with significant but diffused national support, will tend to lose representation in Parliament, as happened to the ANC and the Fijian Nationalists in the 1994 elections under the current constitution.
The public at large may not agree with some of the ANC or Fijian Nationalist policies. However, the extent of their voter support in aggregate, nationally, surely deserves appropriate parliamentary representation.
The CRC unfortunately comes perilously close to arguing that minority groups should not have parliamentary representation if they are not “moderate” towards other ethnic communities (10.62).
Little Incentive for Moderation and Cooperation
The CRC’s claims that the AV system would encourage moderation and co-operation between parties, through “vote pooling” and “trading” of votes.
The CRC argues that, the AV system would encourage an ethnic party in a constituency where its community was outnumbered, to agree to not contest a seat, in return for a reverse favour in another constituency where it held the balance. Or the party would ask its supporters to give their second and third preferences to another party, in return for reverse favours in another constituency.
The CRC’s reasoning is extremely unrealistic. If parties knew they were in the majority, why bother trading since they would not need other votes? If two parties were near to the majority, they would not try to trade. Even if a party knew itself to be in a minority, no party could guarantee that their voters in different constituencies would act according to party directives. Indeed, how could parties ensure that all the horse-trading will balance out for each party across the country?
Fiji’s political parties have amply demonstrated that they have little trust in each other’s statements. The CRC’s assumptions and hopes about “vote pooling” encouraging moderation and co-operation seem quite unfounded. The likely outcomes will be acrimony and widespread accusation of betrayals etc.
In the unlikely event that significant vote trading does take place as the CRC expects, there will also be a new disadvantage: no one will know exactly what support a party really has in a constituency or nationally. Was the recorded voter support, genuine, or support resulting from horse-trading?
Finally, an important weakness would be that once an individual and party has won the seat in parliament (through other party’s votes), no further leverage could be exercised by the other voters for the support of any policy, moderation or co-operation, until the next election.
The CRC erred in not accepting that far more effective moderation may be exercised by minority parties, trading their votes in parliament, especially where there is no clear majority for any one party.
[In Part II, I suggest some modifications which could result in major improvements to the electoral system].
[The above article appeared as “The Constitution Review Commission Report: sound principles but weak advice on electoral system”. The Fiji Times, 1 November, 1996.]
PART II: Three Proposals for Improvements
This article argues that it is possible to eliminate some of the weaknesses in the system recommended by the CRC through minor amendments.
It suggests that good government in Fiji’s current context requires more than just fair representation in Parliament: it requires representation of all major parties in Cabinet.
Political parties also need to discuss a sounder basis for the current review process, which is similar to what was done in 1970 and criticised during the 1987 coups.
How Serve the National Interest?
One major weakness in Fiji’s current electoral system is that all parliamentarians must be elected from some particular constituency. Consequently, re-election often depends on delivering on some electioneering promise to the particular constituency or community, at times to the detriment of the nation.
The CRC itself acknowledged the need to have Government Ministers acting in the national, rather than narrow sectional interests of some particular ethnic group or constituency. However, by totally rejecting the PR (List) system, the CRC maintains this current weakness.
Under the AV system also, if a party is assured of victory in a constituency, minority votes and interests can be totally ignored, and parliamentarians can remain devoted to narrow ethnic or constituency interests, rather than national.
Need for Element of Proportionality
The CRC all too lightly dismissed proportional representation (PR) and the List system. They claimed that PR did not offer any incentives forFiji’s electoral system to become more multi-ethnic (10.62).
On the contrary, however, under a PR system, every vote for a party, of whatever ethnicity, attracted from any constituency whatsoever, will lead to a greater share of the seats. No votes are wasted. There is every incentive for every political party to be multi-ethnic in candidature, and multi-ethnic in policy.
Without taking a multi-ethnic stance, all political parties will be strictly limited in national support to the maximum number of voters in their perceived ethnic groups.
Advantages of a List (PR) System
Good government inFiji’s context requires a range of management, economy-oriented skills which are more likely to be found in the urbanised, more educatedFijicitizens.
Such quality candidates are not necessarily attractive politically to rural electorates and constituencies which prefer traditional local leaders.
Neither are quality potential candidates, who would be excellent from a national point of view, all keen to engage in messy, and often dubious electioneering tactics, in some constituency of the Party’s choice.
Having a List (PR) system would enable all political parties to nominate quality national candidates for Parliament, without having to go through any particular constituency.
Parties, in addition to their constituency candidates, would surely find it a valuable advantage to be able to offer up a slate of “listed” candidates. High on the List would be the Party’s choice for Cabinet or even specific ministerial positions, should the Party receive the requisite number of votes, and be in Government, either as the sole party or as a coalition member.
Party leaders would then also have a direct mechanism, to ensure a Cabinet more liable to act in the national interest, and more representative of under-represented groups such as women and minorities.
Voters would therefore also be directly voting for the kind of Cabinet they wished to see managing the nation’s affairs- surely the ultimate objective of party politics.
A Minor Amendment for the Open Seats
The CRC complicated their recommendation for the ballot paper (and electoral system) by giving voters the choice of ticking above the line for their Party’s choice of candidates, or writing below the line for their own choice (and preferred ranking) of the candidates. Preferences below the line could cut across party lines.
While the system seems simple and manageable, the reality, in a generally illiterate voting population, will be complicated and confusing, especially when the effects of transferred votes have to be calculated by voters.
A minor amendment, however, could make a significant improvement to the system, although some operating kinks would need to be ironed out.
Ticking above the line for the Parties contesting the open seats could be made compulsory (with an option of not supporting any party).
Above the line votes would then be aggregated for all the parties across the country. These votes would go towards the election of, say 15, List candidates, ranked by each Party in their order of importance (including the priority ones standing in constituencies).
Ranking below the line would elect 30 candidates from the 15 constituencies.
The actual allocations of the 15 “above the line” seats to Parties would be such as to ensure that the total final number of seats obtained by a Party (including those elected in each constituency), would be in proportion to the total number of votes they received above the line, in the party vote.
Minority parties, with significant support across the nation, would still obtain fair representation.
Representation for major parties, would also be in proportion to their votes nationally, thereby completely neutralising any undesirable results arising from the setting of electoral boundaries. This could almost completely de-politicise the Electoral Boundaries Commission which could then tend to other desirable objectives under their responsibilities.
The major responsibility of parliamentarians from the reserved communal seats could be the protection of communal interests in each constituency. The major responsibility of the 15 “open” constituency parliamentarians, could be the protection of the general constituency interests. The “List” candidates would be expected and quite free to follow the national interest, without fear of any local censure.
A Major Amendment
As I have suggested in my previous Fiji Times articles,Fiji, at this moment in time, needs something better than a “winner takes all” electoral system. Getting fair representation in Parliament is only part of the picture.
Much more important is the need to ensure thatFiji’s inhabitants can benefit from the best possible Government, derived from whatever ethnic community or party.
A one-party Government, inFiji’s current political climate, is not conducive to good government: no amount of Cabinet re-shuffling of the same “hand of cards” is going to change the cards themselves (asFijihas seen recently). The number of cards available to the Prime Minister, must be increased.
Some of the recent government mismanagement disasters have cost the nation more than $300 millions. The extremists who oppose political change must ask themselves whether indigenous Fijians in the country would not be better off, had better management by Government been able to save even half of that $300 millions plus, for development purposes.
The AV electoral system recommended by the CRC, will not ensure any significant improvement to Government, unless it ensures that Government can draw on the talent in all major political parties, and not just the vulnerable minority parties more amenable to manipulation.
The Joint Parliamentary Select Committee may consider the major amendment that the Constitution formally requires Cabinet to have reasonable representation from all major parties.
Pragmatically, for example, every five (or six) parliamentary seats could earn one Cabinet seat. The actual Cabinet post would depend on the calibre of Cabinet members proposed by the “junior” parties. Such a Cabinet would be more likely to act in the national interest.
Indigenous Fijian Dominance in Government
Under the proportional system, and given Fiji’s population trends, there is clearly a guarantee that the parliamentarians elected by the indigenous Fijians, will always be in the majority in future.
The most recent population projections indicate that by 2001, under a proportional voting system (my first amendment), there would be 35 parliamentarians elected by indigenous Fijians, as opposed to only 30 elected by Indo-Fijians (and 5 by Others). The ratio will keep improving in the favour of indigenous Fijians.
Given my second proposed amendment, the representatives of indigenous Fijians will also always be in the majority in Cabinet.
More importantly, the post-coups reality, which current major opposition parties seem to have articulated, is that they expect the representatives of the indigenous Fijians to exercise dominance in Government.
How this is achieved in the Constitution is an interesting technicality that would merely underline the pragmatic reality.
What is vital is that responsible indigenous Fijian leaders should not lose ground to power-hungry extremists who are using the bogey of Fijians losing political control, to jeopardise current efforts to improve good government in the country through constitutional reform.
Need for Long-Term View
It is possible that the larger parties could act selfishly in order to protect their own interests now, to the detriment of the smaller parties and the national interest.
Thus all major parties may not want to move out of their current ethnic political cocoons which makes life easier for them because they do not have to address issues affecting other ethnic communities.
However, “rigging the rules” in current self-interest can have long-term unexpected results. Witness the citizenship laws ofFijior laws regarding the VKB, which have hit persons least expecting them.
A Constitution, which is a long-term document, is no place for rule rigging. Political leaders will be judged by history for their service to the country over the long term, not for how well they served themselves in the short-term.
How Tackle the Review Process
The major political parties have agreed that a Joint Parliamentary Select Committee will, through confidential discussions, arrive at some consensus on the changes to be made to the 1990 Constitution.
There will not be any opportunity for other public inputs into the review process, and probably not even for final approval through a Referendum. This is unfortunate from two points of view.
Firstly, there may be a number of legitimate views in society, which may not be conveyed through party political channels, especially if the views are not the same as the party views.
Second, it should not be ruled out that, in a few years’ time, other pressure groups could emerge amongst the population, claiming that the Select Committee only represented the major parties, whose leaders in 1996 allegedly “sold out” their community’s interests.
This type of argument was used to partly justify the 1987 coup, against a 1970 Constitution, which had also been decided after discussion and agreement between the leaders of the two major parties then- the Alliance and the NFP.
The political parties should invite independent non-party members of the community (for example from major religious organisations and NGOs), to become members of the Select Committee and help moderate the party discussions.
There should also be a Referendum to provide the final national stamp of approval on the proposed revisions. This could help protect current political leaders from carping minorities.
[The above article appeared as “The Constitution Review Commission Report: Fijians lose in a bad government”. The Fiji Times, 2 November, 1996.]