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“Allegations of vote rigging, the Fiji Electoral Commission and Opposition Inertia” (14 Dec. 2014) (not published)

14/12/2014

Allegations of vote rigging, the Fiji Electoral Commission, and Opposition inertia
Professor Wadan Narsey (14 Dec. 2014) (not published)

 

Before the September 2014 Fiji elections, the Opposition parties and candidates were extremely worried about the possibilities of vote rigging by the Bainimarama Government, especially at the counting and electronic recording stages.

Some substance to their fears was given by a number of unilateral and dictatorial decisions by the Bainimarama Government which appeared quite unreasonable and unfair to Opposition Parties:

  • the appointment of all the key officials in the Elections Office;
  • the appointment of all the Electoral Commission Members, suspected by the Opposition to be Bainimarama Government sympathizers;
  • the electoral system with a single national constituency;
  • the deliberate design of an “unfriendly” ballot paper without candidate names, photos or party name and symbols- only numbers;
  • the banning of independent NGOs from monitoring the counting at the polling stations;
  • the banning of pens and paper, and recording media from the polling stations;
  • and many other decisions, such as the last minute unfair disqualification of Opposition candidates on residential grounds while disallowing a credible opposition challenge to a FFP candidate.
  • An Electoral Commission whose views were ignored by the Bainimarama Government

Some of these restrictions appeared to be designed to ensure that Opposition Parties would have difficulty checking the results.

Then, during the counting process while results were being phoned in from the polling stations to the Elections Office, there was also a strange decision to stop the provisional counting in the middle, when FFP support appeared to have declined to 50% or below, and the Elections Office then going into the “final counting”.

The final results were then issued a couple of days later, with an apparently decisive victory for Fiji First Party and Bainimarama.

The real concern of Opposition parties was that actual counts of votes at polling stations might be changed in the reporting and recording processes to the Elections Office in favor of the Bainimarama Government candidates.

The political parties had been strongly advised that while they could not cover all the polling stations, they must endeavor to cover at least 20 to 50 polling stations accurately, against which they could assess the final counts issued by the Elections Office.   Statisticians know that even this small sample would have given them a good indicator of any vote rigging.

Sadly, it seems that none of the Opposition political parties managed to get any accurate independent results of the counts at a reasonable sample of the polling stations.

But the Opposition parties and many of their candidates claimed that at certain polling stations where they and their family members and close friends said that they had voted for them, the results indicated implausibly low votes for them, even zero.

Was this evidence of vote rigging, or simply evidence that even family members had not voted for them but for Fiji First Party candidates (whatever they told the candidates)?

 When the party worker for one political party went to the Elections Office to query a particular polling station result, he was chased away with the threat that the Elections Office would be calling the police if he did not leave.

My request to the Electoral Commission

 In October 2014 I wrote to two members of the Electoral Commission (Professor Vijay Naidu and Mrs. Jenny Seeto) asking if they had done any independent verification of the counts of a small sample of polling stations and the final results published by the Elections Office for those polling stations.

They had not and I was advised to make my specific recommendation to the Electoral Commission.

I then wrote formally to the Electoral Commission on the 3rd Nov. 2014 pointing out that all that would be needed for an independent sample verification would be (quoting my letter, in red italics):

 * For NGOs and political parties to be invited to witness this exercise

 * for some 20 to 50 polling stations to be randomly selected (you could let the observers choose the stations)

 * the votes to be recounted in their presence

 * and checked/verified against the official results from the Elections Office.

 I would have expected the Electoral Commission to do this in any case as part of their responsibilities and to allay any fears that the political parties may have had about your independence. 

 One can expect discrepancies of a few votes here and there, but not on a systematic basis towards any particular party, as some political parties and candidates are claiming.

 It is essential that this be done as soon as possible. I am sure that the Electoral Commission would be acting within its powers and responsibilities to conduct this exercise, without any permission being sought.”

All very reasonable, I thought, which Electoral Commission Member Mrs Seeto would understand from her own professional work as an accountant and auditor.

But Electoral Commission refuses

The Chairman of the Electoral Commission (Chen B. Young) replied (5th of November)  informing that they had not conducted any independent sample verification of the counts of the polling stations, and did not intend to do so. (read here).

He advised that there were ample checks and balances in place (which they listed) to ensure that there were no discrepancies, that there were legislative restraints that prevented the Electoral Commission from carrying out an independent count of a sample of polling stations as I had requested.

However the Chairman advised that the Opposition Parties and candidates could apply to file a petition at the court of disputed returns, to request a recount at any of the polling stations. The letter also pointed to other remedies available to them through the courts, should they doubt the counts.

The Chairman of the Electoral Commission informed me that no Party or candidate had filed any petition.

I then forwarded this letter from the Chairman of the Electoral Commission to the Opposition political parties who apparently took no action.

Opposition inertia in the face of FFP energy

I find it quite dismaying and an extraordinary symptom of the inertia and lack of initiative on the part of the Opposition parties that despite their complaints of alleged “vote rigging” via electronic manipulation, and despite having a plethora of lawyers in their midst both as candidates and supporters, none of the Opposition Parties or candidates have  filed any petitions to have recounts at the polling stations where they had doubts about the final results.

This inertia does not bode well for their performance in Parliament as an effective opposition and watchdog of a FFP Government which is not only able to draw on all the state resources to bolster their image as an effective government, but they also have at least two energetic and glib leaders who seem to be able to run rings around the Opposition in Parliament.

The refusal of the Electoral Commission to conduct an independent verification of a sample of polling stations, illustrates clearly, that Government appointed bodies even after the restoration of parliamentary democracy, are unlikely to be proactive and take the initiative to safeguard the public interest, especially when the covering legislation has been deliberately designed to emasculate their powers in line with the Bainimarama Government agenda. Go to the courts, as they say.

I am told that at least one member of the Electoral Commission is resigning on principle, disinclined to monitor and supervise the election of trade unionists, as apparently now required of the Electoral Commission by legislation.

A similar process is also at work with the Media Industry Development Authority, whose  Chairman (Ashwin Raj) shows a ready inclination to vociferously and energetically defend the Bainimarama Government at each and every turn, often being quite proactive.

But he refuses to address a number of complaints which have been specifically addressed to him, about the lack of a “level playing field” in the media industry in Fiji and continuing media censorship that this economist faces from the Fiji Sun, Fiji TV and FBC TV and radio stations. (read here)

Make a “formal complaint” he says, despite the fact that complaints have already been made to him and the facts are obvious to the public.

With the membership of the boards of all regulatory bodies (and their senior management) hand-picked by the Bainimarama Government, the Opposition can expect no independent professional assistance from them.

The Opposition faces a hard uphill battle for the next four years of parliament, with little likelihood of any significant success at eroding the FFP support with a public beguiled by Government propaganda through a tightly controlled media.

 

 

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