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“Manipulating democracy” (edited article in Fiji Times, 31 October 2015)


Manipulating democracy (edited article in Fiji Times, 31 October 2015)
Professor Wadan Narsey

I would certainly agree with Nemani Delaibatiki, senior writer for the Fiji Sun, when he reminds the public of the need to protect and strengthen our “fledgling democracy”.

Unfortunately for Nemani, “true democracy” seems to have been born on September 2014 when national elections were held in Fiji and the voting public put pieces of paper in ballot boxes to elect their government, totally according to an electoral system and processes decided by the Bainimarama Government.

It is doubly remarkable that Nemani does not discuss at all, major inconsistencies in the Bainimarama’s practice of “democracy”, in just the last two years alone, visible for all to see.

While the Bainimarama Government tried some semblance of stuttering democracy in the relatively unimportant choice of a new flag, there has been no democracy in the far more important things for Fiji: the Bainimarama Government has simply imposed on us the 2013 Constitution, the electoral system, the President and even a new organization purporting to represent school authorities.

The public need to look beyond the rhetoric of the Bainimarama Government’s “democracy”.

Choosing the flag

Remember how much publicity was given to choosing our new national flag and the associated effusive rhetoric of Mr Aiyaz Khaiyum, the leading intellectual light of the Bainimarama Government?

Every Tom, Dick and Harry were invited to submit the designs; a supposedly representative committee was set up to make a short list, with the help of a foreign expert; then to allegedly ensure genuine democratic involvement, a national voting system with mobile phone numbers was organized at great expense, for people to have “their say”.

It all fizzled out, and I have written elsewhere on it.

But note that the “flag” is a mere piece of cloth, with some designs and colors; it flies on flag-poles, a totally inanimate object; it gives no speeches nationally or internationally.

The flag is never asked to decide any matter of any importance, and I suspect, that despite all the hyperbole about the importance of a flag, it would remain quiet if questioned.

Whereas the constitution and electoral system?

In contrast, the “Fiji Constitution” is a massively powerful document, which the courts must use to decided contentious disagreements in our society, in every field of activity of our citizens.

Everyone understands how important the electoral system is in determining our government for the next four years: oh yes, even appointing ministers who obtained a mere thousand votes in the 2014 elections!

Just list all the areas in which courts are asked to adjudicate, and according to the 2013 Constitution.

But remember how Fiji “adopted” the constitution” and “electoral system”?

Remember how the Bainimarama Government originally set up a democratic process, with overseas and local experts flown in as part of the Yash Ghai Commission, which carried out massive nation-wide consultations and received 7,000 submissions, then collectively wrote a draft constitution, which was intended to be verified by a “People’s Assembly”?

Remember how that democratically constructed Draft Constitution was then thrown out the window by the Bainimarama Government.

Remember how a new 2013 Constitution was imposed on the people of Fiji, by people who also gave themselves immunity for certain unspecified events between 2000 and the 2014 Elections?

Who in their right minds would grant immunity to themselves through a constitution they themselves draft and impose on the country, without any parliamentary or popular approval process?

Just remember, sleeping Fiji public, the Vanuatu judiciary recently jailed a number of persons in positions of authority who tried to grant themselves “pardons” for crimes committed.

Appointing the President

The Bainimarama Government recently went through some process of “appointing a President”.

The pro-Government newspaper sounded out a few names including Nazhat Shameem and Ro Mataitini.

Nowhere on that list was Jioji Konrote, sitting Member of Parliament and Minister in the Bainimarama Government, who was nominated by the Bainimarama Government.

SODELPA strangely nominated Ratu Epeli Ganilau, a former Minister in the Bainimarama Government.

There were no calls by the Bainimarama Government for public nomination of possible candidates.

There were no schemes set up for voting by mobile phones.

Parliament had a vote, but it was not declared to be a conscience vote.

MPs voted along party lines, with the NFP abstaining, because of the lack of consultation by the Bainimarama Government.

There are many who might think that the President has no significant role given in the 2013 Constitution.

But unlike a flag, a President does open his or her mouth nationally, and can bring great credit to Fiji internationally or just be another figure adorned with medals, passing anonymously through the world stage.

For those who value the support of constitutionality and the rule of law at all times, there may not be much to choose between Jioji Konrote, Ratu Epeli Ganilau and Madam Nazhat Shameem.

But most intelligent people in the country have a reasonable idea about these individuals’ various contributions to public life and their potential for the world stage.

I suspect that had a truly democratic choice been made between these three individuals, Fiji would probably have elected its first Indo-Fijian woman President, a genuine historical first.

This President would have been eminently articulate nationally and internationally in all matters that a President can expound forth on, including such matters as gender equality, or climate change, or issues of governance.

There are few such articulate Pacific women with the potential for a comparable international presence.

The public can ask themselves, why did the Bainimarama Government not have a democratic process in the appointment of a President?

Reddy’s “democracy”

Just a few days ago, the Minister for Education (Dr Mahendra Reddy) refused to recognize the Schools Management Association of Fiji (SMAF) whose President Govind Singh had legitimately criticized some MoE policies, asking for more consultation with school authorities. What could be more reasonable?

But the Minister pronounced that he did not want his reforms to be derailed by people who allegedly were failed Labour politicians and supporters, who had personal agenda and who had been sleeping on the job for the last five years (apparently tolerated by the equally sleeping Bainimarama Government?).

The President of the SMAF is democratically elected by the school authorities who are financial members, as pointed out by Kamlesh Arya, the new president, and representative of Arya Pratinidhi Sabha of Fiji, a major education stakeholder.

But now, the peripatetic Dr Mahendra Reddy will nominate and work with his own choice of a National Council for School Managers, 2 reps chosen by him, from the 17 districts.

Dr Reddy ridiculed the idea of a “talanoa” with school authorities, and asserted that he had done “extensive consultation”.  Apparently, Dr Reddy thinks that his “consultation” is not a “talanoa”.

The Bainimarama Government (and Dr Reddy) will not be asking the Elections Office to conduct elections to appoint the school authorities’ representatives, the way they are enforcing with union elections.

Manipulating democracy

For the Bainimarama Government, voting was fine for 2014 National Elections (which were themselves highly manipulated and controlled) and for choosing the national flag.

But voting and true democracy is not fine for choosing the constitution, the electoral system, the President of Fiji, or even the President of SMAF.

Nemani Delaibatiki and the Fiji Sun can spout forth as much as they like about the need to protect and strengthen our “fledgling democracy”.

But the public just needs to understand that just one individual in the Bainimarama Government is deciding what kind of “democracy” Fiji people can “enjoy”.

We might as well redefine Fiji’s democracy as “government of the people, for the Bainimarama Government, by the power of one”.

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