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“Who does the ballot paper serve?” (ed. in FT 25/10/2018)

27/10/2018

Who does the ballot paper serve?

The world over, ballot papers allow voters to cast their vote for some candidate and/or party.

To enable that to happen without any confusion, the world over and especially in developing countries where large proportions of voters are illiterate and innumerate, the ballot papers have the names of the candidates, the party names and/or symbols, and sometimes even the photo of the candidate.

In the old Alternative Vote system under the 1997 Constitution there were 71 constituencies in each of which between 2 and 20 candidates stood, and the ballot paper therefore had their names and party affiliations.

Voters  merely had to tick or number their choices.

Each voter ended up knowing exactly who was supposed to represent them in parliament.

That indeed was the case in Fiji for forty years from 1970 to 2014.

The dramatic change in 2014

Fiji must be one of the few countries in the world which dispensed with this general acceptable format and decided that voters would face one ballot paper with 250 numbers and their task was to choose the number that represented their one candidate.

In doing so, they would also decide in aggregate the 50 members of parliament through a proportional system (subject to the 5% threshold rule I discussed last week), not a one of whom could be held accountable to any region or area of the country.

There are also apparently laws and regulations which prevent voters from taking in reminder cards which show them the exact number of the candidate they prefer, with the person’s name and party affiliation.

How utterly ridiculous.

How did such as system come into being?

More importantly, whose interests (which candidates) does such a system serve?

Do the other candidates have a “level playing field” in such a system?

How can the Fiji Electoral Commission allow such a system which clearly favors a few at the expense of the many candidates?

The biases of the new system: whose interests does it serve?

In the current system the candidates who have the most extensive reach throughout Fiji have an inherent advantage over all other candidates.

This extensive reach can arise because the candidates have been ministers in government travelling all over Fiji for years dispensing tax-payer funds in various fashions to do with developments or other guises, even right up to elections day.

Their faces are well known and when the elections come, their blanket advertisements with huge financing behind them, will drive home the message to their general voting public:  this is the “number” to vote for.

Of course, the biases can also be in favor of all the party leaders who also have an extensive outreach because the media gives them the attention when trying to bring out party differences in policy.

But not so the average candidate who is not a minister and who is not party leader or executive able to devote large amounts of party funds to “their number”.

Where did the one constituency come from?

Voters clearly face hundreds of numbers in one ballot paper because the 2013 Constitution, decreed by Bainimarama and Khaiyum, decided that there would be only one constituency for the hundreds of candidates to compete in.

In this they were paradoxically assisted by the Yash Ghai Draft Electoral system which disregarded the many proposals for a large number of constituencies, and reduced them to only four, with one logic apparently being that this would prevent observers from knowing whether voters were voting along racial lines.

Not they were or were not voting along ethnic lines, but that the ethnic preferences would not be visible from the results.

This is very different from claiming that the system encourages voters to vote along multi-ethnic lines.

But the one constituency clearly allowed Bainimarama and any well-known party leaders, to draw on votes all over the country.

To have multiple constituencies would have limited the appeal of national leaders to the one constituency there were standing in.

In all other constituencies, the Great Leader would have had to depend on his/her party colleagues to compete with each other, with no guarantee that the votes would flow as desired.

Why did the Fiji Electoral Commission not change the system?

Of course, the members of the Fiji Electoral Commission would say that they are there to “implement the law as it is”, not to change the laws even if their personal opinion is that the system is unfair to less well-known candidates.

Indeed, one former Member of the FEC informed me in an email (dated 23 August 2018) which was circulated to all other members of the FEC (Chen Bunn Young, David Arms, Larry Thomas, Alisi Daurewa, Jenny Seeto, James Sowane) that “Following on this tradition of ‘electoral rigging’, we now have a single national constituency that favours Bainimarama and his regime” and that “[subsequently Wadan] correctly said that the whole system was rigged”.

So having admitted that the 2013 Electoral system was “rigged” in favor of Bainimarama, why did the former members of the Fiji Electoral Commission, and this one in particular, not publicly call for changes?

This same former member of the FEC has been commenting on many development issues recently (as is his right).  But for four years he has not commented publicly on the one systemic electoral issue which he officially saw close up and one where his “expert and experienced” views to the public would have been of great assistance in making the 2018 Elections a little fairer for the Opposition parties and candidates in the four years since.

Indeed, none of the former members of the Fiji Electoral Commission have ventured any views whatsoever on the 2013 electoral system which was unilaterally imposed on Fiji by the very person who benefits from such as a distorted system.

Just as they did they make any attempt to independently verify the counts of a single polling station, as was requested by many members of the public.

What now?

Just a month and a half to the 2018 polling, it would be impossible to change the number of constituencies or the ballot paper.

Given that the act cannot be changed, what can the candidates do to ensure that their voters remember their number?

Postscripts:

[This following paragraph was in my original article but FT lawyers pointed out that any changes to the ballot paper would require an act of parliament.

“But what may be done is for the regulations to be changed so that every single voter, if he or she chooses, may take a card into the polling booth, with the name, party affiliation, the picture, and the number given that candidate by the Fiji Elections Office.”

How extraordinary that Opposition Parties have accepted that they will dance to the Bainimarama/Khaiyum tunes in the 2013 Constitution they have imposed on Fiji, which can only be changed by themselves.

Even more extraordinary is that four years after the 2014 Elections there have been no serious attempts to change the ballot paper and make it more friendly for voters.

Any one with common sense can see that the ballot paper has been “rigged” to suit the agenda of Bainimarama and Khaiyum, as one part of their grand strategy to to rig the 2014 Elections.

One can also ask where are the lawyers with a social conscience who one can depend upon to make such constitutional absurdities a national issue through the Fiji Law Society.

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