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“Where is the level playing field?” (earlier version in FT 20/5/2017)

20/05/2017

“Where is the level playing field?” (earlier version in FT 20/5/2017)

The rugby-mad Fiji public would be thoroughly disgusted if one Team (FFP)

  1. insisted on making the “rules of the game” by themselves
  2. insisted on appointing the referees – Fiji Electoral Commission (FEC) and the Supervisor of Elections (SOE)
  3. insisted that the “Upstairs Referee” or TMO must be the Solicitor General (SG) who only answers to the Team Captain of FFP
  4. insisted on changing the rules of the game (“moving the goalposts”) as the game goes on.

But that was the reality with the 2014 elections which were clearly unfair to the Opposition parties, small parties, Independents, and local communities of voters who could not elect an MP unless their candidate belonged to a large party.

The current FEC should note that these unfair aspects and the need for changes were diplomatically pointed out by the Multinational Observer Group (MOG) and also by the previous FEC in their Annual Reports for 2014, 2015 and 2016.

Does the rugby-mad Fiji public have the commitment and courage to call for a “level playing field”?

The referees

The FEC and the SOE (referees) for the 2018 elections have been appointed by the Bainimarama Government, without any input from the Opposition parties.

The FEC is chaired by Suresh Chandra, with other members being Simione Ratabacaca Naiduki, Margot Marie Jenkins, Graham Bruce Southwick, Jawahar Lal, Kavita Raniga and Ratu Paula Halaiwalu.

The FEC Chairman has already stated that the FEC will “apply the law as it is, and not as it should be”.

The public must assume (unless proven otherwise) that these Commissioners are not stooges of the Bainimarama Government and will fulfil their responsibilities with honesty, integrity and transparency.

But this article suggests to Fiji voters, political parties and potential candidates that the law (“rules of the game”) MUST be changed before the next election if it is to be fair to all candidates and voters.

That will also make the task of the FEC easier and keep their reputations intact.

Did FFP candidates learn?

When the 2014 results were announced, most FFP MPs would have learnt how “lucky” they were to be in parliament.

Many who had followed the 2014 FFP strategy of asking their supporters to vote for the Leader (number 279) and not themselves personally, “failed” because their personal votes were not enough to get them above the cutoff point for the FFP proportional share of the 50 seats.

FFP candidates will not be so silly in the 2018 elections.

I predict that Bainimarama’s personal vote will go down significantly while that going to the other FFP candidates will increase. The swing may be even more if the Opposition parties gain ground on FFP.

If the Bainimarama Government refuses to respond constructively to reasonable calls for electoral reform, then Opposition parties will have no option but to call for the complete rejection of the 2013 Constitution and its imposed electoral system and the “rules of the game”.

The following are some of the more urgent issues for electoral reform.

Appointment of the referees: FEC and Supervisor of Elections

The 2014 Annual Report of the FEC pointed out (p.14) that while they while they were considering the applicants for the position of Supervisor of Elections “The Attorney General as Minister of Elections advised the Commissioners that the overseas applicants who had applied for the position were either not suitable or now not available  due to the passage of time and the Minister of Elections submitted the name of Mr. Mohammed Saneem”.

The FEC did not point out the obvious given that the Attorney General was also the Secretary of the Fiji First Party: it was a clear conflict of interest for him to advise who was not suitable as SOE, and to appoint his own choice.

It was natural for the other teams to lack confidence in the SOE, and he did prove the point in due course.

The SOE did not obey the law

While the 2013 Constitution clearly states that “the Supervisor of Elections must (my emphasis) comply with any directions that the Electoral Commission gives him” Saneem refused to obey key decisions of the FEC.

Eventually, the FEC had to apply to the Appeals Court which ruled that Saneem was wrong to allow a Fiji First candidate  who the FEC had disallowed (and he is still a Minister in the Bainimarama Government); and was wrong to disallow Opposition candidates who the FEC had approved.

Despite that Appeals Court judgement, the Supervisor of Elections has not acted to stand down that FFP MP (and Minister) while a higher court hears the case. In contrast, Opposition MPs have been removed from Parliament by lesser authority than the current laws of Fiji.

The Opposition Parties must nominate their representatives to the FEC.

The FEC must insist that there be a new Supervisor of Elections appointed by them, and answerable to them only,  not to the Attorney General who is the Secretary of the political party which currently forms government.

Party registration

The current regulations require that for a political party to be registered it must submit a schedule setting out the names, addresses, signatures and voter IDs of 5,000 members, of the proposed political party, with 2000 from the Central Division, 1,750 from the Western Division, 1000 from the Northern Division and 250 from the Eastern Division.  The MOG mildly noted that this sets “Fiji  apart from the standard practice internationally”.

But common sense would indicate how this law is totally unfair and undemocratic:

  1. why require distribution in the four divisions when votes were to be counted in ONE national constituency.
  2. Why deny voters of a particular geographical area their democratic right to be represented in parliament unless they have support elsewhere in the country?
  3. Why ask such large numbers of voters to reveal their political support, when voting is supposed to be “secret ballot”?

The 5% Threshold

While the current electoral system does have the advantage of being roughly proportional, the public should note that one seat represents only  about 2% of the votes cast, or roughly 10,000 votes.

So why demand parties and independents to have a minimum of 5% of the votes cast or a massive 27,000 votes, in order to be eligible to be elected into Parliament?

The 2014 results showed that some 36,000 votes given to Independents and small parties were made worthless, revealing the propaganda of  “1 person = 1 vote = 1 value”.

Regional constituencies could not elect their own candidate unless he/she for some large party with national support.

The 2014 results showed that with Bainimarama getting 200,000 votes, riding on his back into parliament were a large number of candidates with less than 1,000 votes each, even as little as 500.  A massive 20 (yes, TWENTY) of the least popular FFP MPs TOGETHER received than 27,000 votes the minimum required of small parties  and Independents.

The threshold (if there is to be one at all) must to be reduced to 2%.

Constituencies

The public has frequently called for a return of local constituencies so that voters can have “their own representative” in parliament to address their needs. This does not mean a rejection of the principle of proportionality.

Several workable systems with local constituencies but overall proportionality (with a List system) had been suggested and demonstrated to the Yash Ghai Commission. A “Closed List” system would even have guaranteed more women in parliament.

The Leader of the FFP might note that with  multiple constituencies it will not be possible to fairly compare his personal votes in 2018, with the number he received in 2014.

The ballot paper

The public and the FEC must ask themselves why in a developing country like Fiji with a large proportion of people who are not literate or numerate, the Bainimarama Government should insist on a ballot paper with only hundreds of numbers on it.

How ridiculous to have no photos of candidates; no names; no political party symbols; no separation of candidates from different parties; and no voter guide cards allowed into the polling booth; etc.

The MOG noted diplomatically, “It was unusual that there was no political party identification on either the ballot paper or the National Candidate List …The National Candidate List was arranged in numerical order by candidate number, included candidates’ names and photographs, but did not include political party names or symbols. Voters were prohibited from bringing how-to-vote pamphlets into polling stations”.

The MOG noted that financial penalties for contradicting any of the draconian laws were also severe and totally uncalled for given the alleged “misdemeanours”.

So why this complicated and penal system? Duh!

Common sense suggests that the entire system was designed by the FFP strategists to support their national campaign for voters to remember the number “279”.

And the FFP supporters, with massive media campaigns by the FFP supported by the corporate giants, did exactly that, giving Bainimarama more than 200 thousand votes personally.

In the process, an unknown PDP candidate Vuniyayawa (with number 297) got 4956 votes (more than twice that received by the PDP leader Felix Anthony with 1879 votes).

It made a mockery of the claim by the FEC  Annual Report for 2014 that that there was a “very low percentage of invalid votes” when they had no idea how many voters did not actually vote for the person they wanted to vote for.

Voter Education

The MOG noted that “Heavy restrictions were placed on civil society participation in the lead up to the election. Electoral Decree section 115 is unduly restrictive. This provision precluded some civil society organisations not only from participating in political debate but also from taking part in voter education initiatives.”

While the FEC is given the responsibility for voter education, that should not preclude civil society groups.

Moving the goal post

As the MOG noted, “Changes to legislation, and new rules introduced in the lead-up to the election, had a negative impact on political parties and prospective candidates’ confidence in their ability to campaign freely and effectively under Fiji’s legal framework”.

Discouragement of Opposition meetings

The MOG had recommended that “The Public Order (Amendment) Decree 2012 should be revised to allow groups, including political parties, to gather without requiring a permit”.

Clearly, various decrees and the requirement to have permits were used to discourage meetings by the Opposition parties.

In contrast, Government Ministers meeting with the general population had and still have no such restrictions.

The role of the media

The MOG mildly noted “the restrictive and vague media framework, including potentially harsh penalties, limited the media’s ability to rigorously examine the claims of candidates and parties”.

But it was clear during the campaigning that at least two of the media organizations (one Government owned and paid for by taxpayers’ funds), gave maximum exposure to FFP candidates and minimum exposure to Opposition and Independent candidates.

The MOG recommended “There is a need for a regulation as well as an independent institution to prevent and adjudicate media biases, thus ensuring a level playing field among election participants”.

It is clear that MIDA did not have the confidence of the MOG, just as it does not have the confidence of the Opposition parties.

Lack of Government Response

The 2017 FEC might wish to note that the Annual Reports of the FEC have deteriorated.

The previous FEC chaired by Chen Bun Young raised many issues with the Attorney General and the Solicitor General’s Office and this was documented. But also documented were the issues to which the Government (Attorney General or Solicitor General) had not responded to.

In the 2016 FEC Annual Report however, Annex 2 only stated that complaints were “addressed at FEC meeting”. How exactly they were addressed is not clarified. The Report failed to note which of the issues had not been responded to by the Government, especially the Solicitor General.

Funding and Independence of FEC

The 1915 FEC Annual Reports stated that “lack of resources for institutional support disabled the Electoral Commission” and that  “the Electoral Commission is in dire need of a policy and operational guideline to ensure its objectives are realised effectively”.

The 2016 FEC Annual Report again that  “the independence of the Electoral Commission is still a work in progress. It does not have a budget that it can really call its own”.

The FEC could not seek independent legal opinion rather than from a Solicitor General who answered to the Attorney General and the Secretary of the governing political party.

The FEC should note that given the need for the FEC to be totally independent of the Supervisor of Elections, the SOE cannot be allowed to be the Secretary to the FEC.

Last but not least, the public may note that despite many doubts about the accuracy of the counting of votes, not a single polling booth result was independently verified by the previous FEC, and the ballot papers have all been destroyed.

I have not even mentioned the need for voters to be aware of vote-buying tactics by any party.

It is critical that the Opposition Parties, potential independent candidates and NGOs urgently convene a meeting to discuss and call for all the changes that are necessary if the 2018 elections are to be fair and transparent.

I suggest that the well-known prolific writers of Letters to the Editor of Fiji Times would do their fans a great service by discussing the issues here, as a change from rugby sevens.

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