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“The voting behavior in Fiji’s Sep. 17 Elections”. The Fiji Times, 21 Sep. 2014.

21/09/2014

The Voting Behavior in the Fiji 2014 Elections
Professor Wadan Narsey
[The Fiji Times, 21 Sep. 2014]

After eight years of running an unelected military government, and seemingly against the odds, Voreqe Bainimarama (Leader of the Fiji First Party) has now become an elected Prime Minister, and by a large margin.

Based on 73% of the provisional votes counted, FFP has won some 33 seats out of a 50 seat parliament, with SODELPA only receiving 14 seats, and National Federation Party (NFP) with only 3 seats.

Four small parties, including the once powerful Fiji Labor Party (FLP) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), and 2 Independents did not make the 5% threshold, and hence they and their votes were all discarded.

While the usual cliché is “the people have spoken” the real question is, why did they speak thus?

The result is astonishing to the opposition voices who have been highlighting the many negative aspects in the eight year record of the Bainimarama Government: it started with an illegal coup, it issued numerous decrees reducing the basic human rights of people in freedom of speech, muzzled the freedom of media, freedom of assembly, the right to go to court for perceived grievances, abolished Fijian institutions recognized by the 1997 Constitution, refused to release the Auditor General Reports, unilaterally reduced pensions, broke many environmental laws, stifled wage increases by the Wages Councils, etc.

Perhaps these factors had very little impact on the outcome of the elections because of the abject failure of the educated leaders of both Fijians and Indo-Fijians to enlighten the less educated voters.

But I suggest that it not useful to blame “liumuri” (betrayal) factor for both indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians, as some in the Opposition parties may be inclined to do.

I suggest that “bread and butter” issues had a most powerful impact on the poorer voters (who comprise the majority of all voters of all ethnic groups) while emotional and physical security were also additionally important to Indo-Fijian voters, afraid of Fijian ethno-nationalism and SODELPA’s campaign strategy.

The rich of course were in total support of FFP in many concrete ways, not the least through their influence on the media, the propaganda and the financing of the FFP election campaigns (another article).

The ethnic components of FFP support (slight corrections to ethnic percentages on 22 Sep.)

I roughly estimate that Fiji First Party received about 80% of Indo-Fijian votes, about what FLP had in 2006.

Undoubtedly, a powerful factor was the Bainimarama Government’s repetition of the mantra, that under them, “all races are equal in Fiji”.

This otherwise nebulous claim was given substance by the freeing up of scholarships and loans for education, which Indo-Fijians value most highly, and in which Indo-Fijians have been the largest beneficiaries.

Then there was the “fear factor”: most Indo-Fijians were afraid that a SODELPA government would unleash the same forces that had led to the 1987 and 2000 coups against Indo-Fijians.

These Indo-Fijians felt that Bainimarama and Fiji First Party, with clear control and support of the military, whatever their roles in 1987 and 2000, were today the only ones capable of protecting Indo-Fijians, not the alternative parties NFP, FLP or PDP.

But Bainimarama could not have won by this majority had it not been of the support of a large proportion of indigenous Fijian voters.

I estimate, by working backwards from the mostly indigenous Fijian votes received by SODELPA and that going to the small parties, that around 41% of  indigenous Fijian voters also voted for FFP (almost as many as the 50% who voted for SODELPA).

“Freebies” were probably the most powerful factor for them, and may have led to the alleged “liumuri” of SODELPA who expected to win far more than 25 seats based on what indigenous Fijians had told them before the election.

“Freebies” or “vote buying”?

 It can be difficult to know when a “freebie” is “vote buying” and not just a good policy by any good government, although the timing of the freebie can be a good indicator.

But for the majority of ordinary Indo-Fijians and indigenous Fijians, a massive factor in their vote for Bainimarama was undoubtedly the benefits of free education already delivered, and the promise of many further benefits to come.

Released in the FFP Manifesto a mere ten  days before the main polling on 17 September, Bainimarama promised voters from low income families free electricity, water, medicines, and milk for Class 1 children throughout Fiji, as well as “first home” grants.

There was $10 million dollars promised to indigenous Fijians to help develop their lands.

There have also been roads, water, and sewerage developments in many rural areas that indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians have also been grateful for (whatever the costs in Public Debt).

Some think that the equalization of lease money between commoners and chiefs has been important for Fijian land-owners (but I doubt it).

In summary, the ordinary “bread and butter” issues were far more important to voters of all ethnicity, and emotional and physical security to Indo-Fijian voters, than issues of “law and constitutionality” and “basic human rights” which had been eroded for eight years, but “out of sight”.

This was also the case in the 1999 elections when Indo-Fijians voted for the FLP rather than the NFP which delivered to them the theoretical benefits of the 1997 Constitution and the “multi-party government provision”, and which the FLP campaigned against: “this piece of paper will not fill people’s stomachs”.

Perhaps Fiji’s choice is also not too different from the choice being currently made in Scotland between the importance of “bread and butter” issues as opposed to the dignity of independent nationhood after centuries of colonization by England.

 A step forward, with headaches to come

The people have spoken, provided there is no significant evidence of vote rigging (which some parties are alleging), and whatever one may say about the manipulative impact of the electoral system, the electioneering strategies, and the powerful impact of the media propaganda and campaigns (which deserve another article).

There is now an elected Government, which may be made more accountable through an elected Parliament, where questions may be raised by the Opposition members and answers demanded of the government.

The Opposition can now call for all the Auditor General’s Reports since 2006, to be tabled in Parliament, so that the public can see how the tax-payers’ funds have been utilized (and how some Ministers’ salaries and how much have been paid since 2006).

The Opposition can also call for further debates and judicial reviews of Fiji’s constitution, including the reconciliation of the current imposed own with the 1997 Constitution which was ruled by the Fiji Court of Appeal to be still extant.

It is going to be a major struggle for the Opposition to call for a fresh look at a range of decrees which have restricted the basic human rights of Fiji people, listed at the beginning of this article.

The proceedings of parliament may also enable the media and journalists to highlight issues and be a better “watch-dog” on government and society at large.

One light at the end of the tunnel is that with all international sanctions removed and external relations with Australia, NZ, EU and US normalized, there should also be a resurgence of investor confidence, and renewed economic growth.

Healthy rates of growth of over 6% per year could make management of Fiji’s significantly increased Public Debt a little bit easier, create new jobs, and perhaps help improve standards of living which have taken a battering since 2006.

While the naïve may proclaim that this is “the dawn of a new era”, the responsible civil society organizations and social leaders know that this is just the beginning of a long and painful struggle to re-establish a just society which our people deserve (next article).

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