2014 Election Plan Underway

From Islands Business
Bainimarama outlines non-negotiable issues

Ricardo Morris

When Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama’s announcement for a constitutional process finally came in early March, it felt both exciting and vaguely familiar.

Exciting because it seemed like the military-led government was sticking to its promises; vaguely familiar because of the other announcements that followed; familiar too because, true to form, Bainimarama already had very clear guidelines on how the process would work—including the unsurprising fact that the new constitution “must be premised on the fundamental values and principles set out in the People’s Charter for Change”.

Unsurprising too, but impressive nonetheless, is the recruitment of globally acclaimed constitutionalist, Kenyan Professor Yash Ghai, as head of a five-member constitutional commission to hear submissions from July through to September.

The first woman deputy Prime Minister of Fiji, Taufa Vakatale, and academic, writer and former parliamentarian Satendra Nandan have been named as members of the commission. Two more would be named later.

Before the constitutional hearings, a civic education programme will be carried out from May to July across the country. 

Bainimarama says this month civil servants will compile “materials highlighting issues for all Fijians to think about” before the review process starts.
The materials will include the People’s Charter for Change, which the Bainimarama administration drew up following its takeover of the government in late 2006.

Non-negotiable elements
Bainimarama has outlined what he says are “non-negotiable” elements of any new constitution and it is based on these principles the Ghai-led panel will need to draft a new document for Fiji from October to December 2012.
These “guiding pr
inciples” are common and equal citizenry; a secular state; removal of systemic corruption; an independent judiciary; elimination of discrimination; good and transparent governance; social justice; one person, one vote, one value; elimination of ethnic voting; proportional representation; and voting age of 18.

In January 2013, the draft document will be submitted to a Constituent Assembly, consisting of representatives from Fiji-registered civil society groups and organisations, including faith-based organisations, national institutions, political parties and government. 

Bainimarama likened the Constituent Assembly—which will be named in December—to his National Council for Building a Better Fiji, which he set up after his takeover.
Any amendments to the draft constitution will be debated and made by the Constituent Assembly and by February 2013, a finalised document should be ready for President Ratu Epeli Nailatikau to assent to, according to Bainimarama. 

He says the resulting document should be “an enduring blueprint for all Fijians”.
With a general election scheduled for September 2014, this should mean Fijians will have a year-and-a-half to familiarise themselves with the fourth constitutional document the country has had since independence in 1970.
The man chosen to head the constitutional process, Ghai, is no stranger to Fiji. During the mid-1990s when the previous coup-installed constitution was being reviewed, he helped the Fiji Labour Party with its submissions to the constitutional commission. 

More recently, he was in Fiji in January to discuss a book he co-authored on constitution-making.

Ghai says several Fijians asked him to take up the assignment and he agreed despite the “considerable personal inconvenience”. 

“I am not looking for any personal gain, but to assist reconciliation in a country which I know well and where I have many friends from all communities,” he was quoted as saying on a New Zealand-based Fiji blog.

Fiercely independent, Ghai has defended his role in the Constitutional Commission, saying that although he is linked to the same university Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum attended, it does not mean he is compromised.

He told Radio New Zealand International that despite also teaching the Kenyan Attorney-General and former Chief Justice, that did not prevent him from criticising them when they erred.

Last year, Ghai wrote a damning opinion piece calling for the impeachment of Kenya President Mwai Kibaki for lobbying against the International Criminal Court trials of his associates.
More relevant to Fiji, Ghai has said the government should review all laws that restrict freedoms to ensure frank discussions on the constitution before the process begins.

Following Bainimarama’s announcement, there were immediate responses from Mahendra Chaudhry’s Fiji Labour Party (FLP), the Fiji Trades Union Congress (FTUC) and the Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL) party of ousted Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase. 

All three statements questioned the need for a new constitution, claiming the 1997 Constitution which was declared abrogated in April 2009, was still valid. 

Generally, though, reaction to the constitutional announcement was positive with many eager to participate, judging from the feedback printed in the correspondence columns of the daily newspapers. Others have questioned the need for another constitution and elections.
Mysterious graffiti messages appeared on bus stops and buildings around Suva in March, claiming there was no need for elections. 

The government responded that the consultation process would be the best forum for people to freely speak their mind and that the country was on track to conducting “inclusive and transparent consultations”. And the police said they were investigating.

The next big announcement followed weeks after Bainimarama’s first—this time that the 137-year old institution of the Great Council of Chiefs was being “de-established”.
Despite being a British colonial creation, the GCC had played an important role in the hearts and minds of many indigenous Fijians over the years. 

The GCC was abolished in four decrees signed by the President, one of which, merely deleted the words “Great Council of Chiefs” in the relevant law, replacing it with the words “iTaukei Affairs Board”.

Bainimarama said the institution in “modern times has become politicised to the detriment of Fiji’s pursuit of a common and equal citizenry”.

Bainimarama said over the past 20 years or so, the GCC, including its secretariat, had become highly politicised, with its members having political affiliations and membership in political parties.

Cakaudrove paramount chief Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu sounded emotional on national television the day the abolition was announced. 

He lamented the demise of the GCC, saying he hoped there would continue to be a place for the council in future.

However, this is unlikely, taking into account Bainimarama’s statement that the GCC had “perpetuated elitism and fed into the divisive politics which plagued our country. 

“We must now look at our commonalities as citizens of the same nation, and not what separates us as individuals or groups.”

Abolishing GCC notwithstanding, and appearing to want to maintain some of the goodwill it had created in the preceding months, the government announced that the Fiji Police Force had granted a permit to the previously banned SDL to hold a meeting. 

A statement said police would grant permits to “all political parties and other organisations” subject to the laws of the country.


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