“Election Issues 9: Is there internal party democracy?”. 26 April 2014.
Election Issues 8 Is there internal party democracy?
Professor Wadan Narsey (26 April 2014)
(a slightly different version appeared in The Fiji Times, 26 April 2014)
One election issue which has not been raised at all in the media, is the question of internal party democracy.
In a recent interview on “4 The Record”, an aspiring political candidate and Party Leader stated that he saw the restoration of “democracy” as one of important objectives that would be included in his party’s elections manifesto.
When the talk show host asked the Party Leader to give his interpretation of the term “democracy”, the explanation was quite reasonable, described in the usual terms such as accountability of governments to voters for their decisions, including revenue collections through taxes and spending, and reporting to the public through annual Auditor General Reports.
But one aspect was missing from the discussion: what about the internal democracy of political parties themselves and their accountability to their supporters?
Actual practice differs throughout the “so-called” democratic world and the questions below give you a start to understanding what happens in reality.
I say “so-called” as even a cursory examination of the way democracy works in United States with the Democratic and Republican parties will give you very revealing answers to the questions below.
As also will a close examination of parties in Australia and NZ, our nearest developed neighbors, whose democratic party principles are generally strong, but also clearly contestable as close analysis of the Kevin Rudd/Julia Gillard/Kevin Rudd passage through revolving door for the Prime Minister’s position would indicate.
The actual practice of Fiji’s political parties are equally, if not more interesting.
What criteria to judge parties?
In all political parties, there is a tension or conflict of interest between transparent accountability to the supporters, and the interests of often manipulative men and women in the shadows behind the leaders.
Voters and party supporters can better understand the nature of internal democracy of their own political parties by seeking answers to the following questions:
(a) how are Party Leaders and position holders chosen?
(b) How are candidates chosen?
(c) How are policies chosen?
(d) How free are party supporters to question their leaders without fear of victimization, and actually receive answers?
(e) How accountable are political parties to their supporters for their decisions?
(f) how accountable are political parties for the revenues that they raise from their supporters (obvious and often hidden corporate sources) and how do they spend them?
(g) Is there a genuine leadership structure and succession plan so that should the Party Leader disappear, for whatever reasons, there is an obvious successor available, or at least a second tier of Deputies from whom the Party Leader can be chosen by some democratic process?
Indeed nearly all the questions that one can ask of the accountability and transparency of governments, can be equally asked of the political parties and their leaders.
Usual practice in Fiji
Voters who have some knowledge of Fiji’s previous political parties will know that most of them fail nearly all the tests posed by these questions above.
Quite often, the Party Leader or a small shadowy group of trusted advisers, make all the decisions, which are handed down to the party supporters on a “take it or leave it” basis.
Often there may even be annual general meetings which are orchestrated by those who control the Party, giving a great facade of democracy, but the decisions are all made by a small elite, and often the Great Party Leader, and “passed” by the gathering, with no debate tolerated.
Often, no one knows how much money has been raised and where the money has gone, with properly audited accounts as rare as hen’s teeth.
One can have long discussions about each of the questions above.
But one very obvious one that all voters can themselves apply today is (g): do Party Leaders have a genuine democratic succession plan and genuine “Deputies”?
e.g. Who are the Genuine Deputies?
One can easily apply this question to the political Parties and governments led by Ratu Mara, Dr Bavadra (or Jai Ram Reddy and Mahendra Chaudhry), Rabuka, Chaudhry, and lately Rear Admiral Bainimarama.
I suggest that it would be rare indeed to be able to find any with a definite succession plan, based on genuine democracy in the Party and government.
Indeed the practice used to be quite the opposite.
Some Leaders made sure that there was no second tier leaders who could possibly challenge him.
If any arose and showed signs of leadership, they were chopped off (one version of the “tall poppy” syndrome).
Quite symptomatic of the lack of accountability of even the deposed leaders to their supporters is that most go away quietly without protest and without informing their supporters of what was happening, another expression of the collusive “culture of silence” amongst our leaders.
Party Leaders often chose deputies who had no independent support in the party, and were therefore totally dependent on the Leader for their position.
Some deputies and even symbolic presidents were chosen to give the appearance of “multi-racialism” and some even financed by the Leader from shadowy slush funds to keep them in line.
Some Party Leaders harbored ambitions for their own children and some succeeded some did not, but not for lack of trying: like the Kennedy or Bush dynasties in United States, Nehru/Gandhi in India, Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, the Kims of North Korea, and the list gets longer every year.
Often the departure of a dictatorial political leader left a terrible leadership vacuum in the party and total chaos for years, until the next leader was somehow chosen or rose to the top.
While most political parties and leaders are calling for the restoration of “democracy” to Fiji, what they usually want to talk about is having the government (and some other political party) accountable to the voters.
Few, if any. want to talk about the political parties own practice of internal democracy.
So all voters and party supporters can examine their own party, and any other political parties seeking their votes and ask the questions (a) to (g) above:
how internally democratic are parties themselves?