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Fiji’s ‘free and fair’ elections: It’s what happens next that counts

Steven Ratuva

Auckland University’s Dr Steven Ratuva … Fiji needs a cooperative political environment after the elections. Image: Del Abcede/PMC

In spite of controversies in the lead-up to the post-coup elections, there is confidence that the polling will reflect the people’s preferences. But, reports Asia-Pacific Journalism, it is the election aftermath that will decide if it really is a transition to democracy.

Pacific Scoop:
Report – By Mads Anneberg

“You vote me into Parliament and there will be no coup.”

That’s how Fiji’s interim Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama summed up worries clouding the forthcoming post-coup elections during an Auckland visit earlier this month.

In a country with a history of coups over the past two decades – the latest being in 2006 and headed by Bainimarama himself – having yet another is the background fear.

fiji electionslogo 250wide_1While Bainimarama has since stated he will “accept the election outcome” on September 17, another coup remains to be the biggest – if not most likely – threat to post-election democracy in Fiji.

However, an elected and lasting government is no guarantee of democracy, says Fiji academic Dr Steven Ratuva, senior lecturer at Auckland University’s Centre for Pacific Studies.

He says the most important thing about the election is that it results in a cooperative political environment – unlike the situation at the moment.

“For the sake of future stability and unity in the country, the elected government needs to look for coalition partners. Even if it wins the majority of the seats.”

APJlogo72_iconLead-up concerns
Leading up to the elections, there has been a great deal of focus on one particular question: Will the elections be free and fair?

Amnesty International made its views on the matter clear recently when it released the report “Fiji: Play fair: A human rights agenda”.

The report accused Bainimarama of creating a “climate of fear” in his nearly eight years in power. It also called on him and his government to lift “restrictions on freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.”

New Zealand’s Foreign Minister, Murray McCully, is head of the Pacific Islands Forum group that will observe the Fiji elections.

In an email to Pacific Scoop, the minister indicated he was aware of the recent report but would not specify if he was concerned with the issues it pointed out.

“We are aware of the recent Amnesty International report. There are still a number of areas which Fiji needs to address in terms of democratic norms and institutions and we are encouraging them to do so,” he says.

The comment came before McCully’s meeting with Fiji Foreign Minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola on Friday.

Being the first meeting of the countries’ Foreign Ministers since 2006, it is seen as a step to restoring the relationship between Wellington and Suva, which has been halted in recent years.

Restrictions on NGOs
The Amnesty report is particularly concerned about the restrictions put on NGOs in the election. And for good reason, according to Fiji’s NGO Coalition on Human Rights.

Shamima Ali

Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre’s executive director Shamima Ali … little done by Fiji regime to implement new law prohibiting violence against women. Photo: Gender Across Borders

Shamima Ali, the coalition chair, told Pacific Scoop that the Electoral Decree has been a “great hindrance” to the NGOs.

The decree bars NGOs from doing election-related activities. Ali said this is particularly an issue for organisations who want to do voter education but also restricts the other organisations.

“We want to participate. This is not like other elections, because we’re voting after nearly eight years of military rule of an unelected government. So it’s really important that we have full participation from the citizenry,” she says.

Ali, who herself heads the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre, believes the voters have the right to hear from the NGOs about the parties’ policies.

“As legitimate NGOs who have contributed a lot to Fiji, we have every right to contribute now,” she says.

Dr Ratuva also underlined that “there are mechanisms in place to reduce the level of participation by the public”.

“At the end of the day, elections are not just for politicians and voters. It’s for civil society organisations, it’s for the community at large and it’s for the media. So there has to be a free environment,” he said.

Coalition is key
Much like New Zealand, the European Union is looking to restore relations with an elected Fiji government. And from here, there is optimism that election day itself will be democratic.

“If it continues the way it’s looking now, I think you can have an election that reasonably reflects the people’s will. We can only hope that it continues like this,” says Johnny Engell-Hansen, Deputy Head of the EU delegation in the Pacific.

Ali is also fairly optimistic that the polling will reflect the people’s preferences – at least in most sections of society. But she stresses that it does not stop with a free and fair election day.

“We’re hoping on the day of the elections that people are going in with good will and things will go smoothly. But the big work is after the elections. We have to get back to democracy, and only having an elected Parliament is not going to make everything good,” she said.

Dr Ratuva made the same point and pointed towards the past as an example.

“Whatever political party gets the majority, it has to form alliances with other parties. That is the way of moving Fiji forward rather than having a situation as in the past where the extremely bad feelings between parties build up and eventually explodes,” he said.

Dr Ratuva does not find it impossible that even Bainimarama’s party FijiFirst and the SODELPA party can work together. But it will require a change of attitude.

“It is possible FijiFirst can win the majority, but it’s important for them not to be single-minded as they are at the moment,” he said.

Mads Anneberg is an Inclusive Journalism Initiative (IJI) programme student at AUT University, and reporting on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course.