Thinking About Political Parties in Fiji

Time to Party
By Sudarsan Kant

Thoughts on the roles of political parties in a democracy and the essential roles of the winning and losing parties.

Thinking about political parties ought to be as important as getting the constitution right or registering everyone to vote in the upcoming elections.”
___

The Bainimarama government is understandably nervous about the Machiavellian machinations between the major political parties as they prepare for the upcoming general elections, given the historical baggage they bring to the electoral process.

Be that as it may, the government needs to encourage and educate the broader public about the importance of adequate representation via political parties and the responsibilities and obligations attached to both the voters and the parties that represent them.

Shadows from Fiji's past
For members of my generation our political awakening occurred in the shadow of the National Federation and Alliance Parties which occupied the political stage in the period following independence. The emergence of the Nationalists under Butadroka and the breakup of the NFP in the aftermath of the 1977 elections exposed to the wider public the deep fissures beneath the surface of Fiji politics and the intrinsic weakness of a two party system that most of us had taken for granted. The coup d’état of 1987 ensured for the next generation that political parties in Fiji could not and should not be the ultimate arbiters of citizen aspirations or act as conduits for policy formulation and political representation.

It is not an exaggeration to say that an entire society has now grown up without a proper appreciation of the fundamental role that political parties play in society and why they are indispensable for democracy to take root and flourish.

Attributes of political parties
I will focus on two salient attributes that (1) political parties bring to the political process as Fiji prepares for the upcoming elections and (2) how responsible political parties can contribute towards the rebuilding of a decent and flourishing society.

From a policy perspective, political parties aggregate voter preferences that may eventually translate into legislation. Political parties perform the crucial function of developing procedures and mechanisms to understand and respond to the needs and desires of the electorate and ultimately the nation. From an ideological perspective, political parties can in theory act as a moderating influence among disparate and sometimes extreme interest groups that threaten to undermine democracy or communal relations and national unity.

Thinking about political parties ought to be as important as getting the constitution right or registering everyone to vote in the upcoming elections.

Single-party, two-party and multi-party states
A single party state generally oscillates between totalitarian or authoritarian forms of governance depending upon its historical configurations and ideological trajectories. Needless to say single party governance is the least desirable form of political representation one would choose to have especially in heterogeneous societies.

Thankfully, the debate in Fiji is between the merits of a strong two party system that could equitably represent the electorate, or the creation of a multi-party system which is more representative of our fragmented social, political, cultural and economic interests.

Both systems have certain advantages and disadvantages that will have to be accounted for within our local context and the institutional rules governing the formation of political parties in Fiji will have to determine which system can best meet citizen demands and better contribute towards a more democratic and stable political order.

The elimination of communal voting should help to reduce the influence of extreme ethno-nationalists, while a strong two party system could in theory act as a moderating influence among those who would like to participate in the political process in Fiji.

If the constitution works as promised, then a multi-party system in Fiji could adequately represent the full spectrum of issues and agendas of the many diverse communities without hijacking the national interest or injuring other communities.

Problems with two-party systems: the US example
The United States protects it two-party system by creating very high barriers to entry for other political parties to emerge and contest the status quo. The institutional rules for third parties to challenge the existing political arrangement is very difficult to meet, thus forcing political players, interest groups, stakeholders and voters to work within the framework of either the Republican or Democratic parties if they want to participate in the political process.

The two political parties therefore have to develop a “big tent” approach on issues with varied groups in order to attract and accommodate a large and diverse electorate. This has worked for a very long time in creating a kind of stable political order which is quite remarkable and resilient.

However, two party systems can get hijacked by powerful extremist groups which in the absence of competing parties create an unstable political climate. Such is the case with the current Republican Party ostensibly taken over by a small group of racially charged religious fundamentalist bankrolled by a cabal of wealthy patrons. A second problem with a two party system is that large groups of citizens do not feel represented by either party and therefore drop out of the political process altogether. This is not a desirable outcome for a society that so closely identifies itself with the idea of democracy and political representation.

The multi-party system
In a multi-party system there are a handful of dominant political parties as well as lots of smaller ones. Institutional rules regulating the formation of political parties are easier to meet and the electorate is much more amenable towards niche political parties.

The advantage of a multi-party system is that almost any group can have direct political representation in public office. Farmers, unions, business groups, religious organizations, ethnic communities, landowners, etc, can form political parties and elect individuals to represent their interests.

The downside is that political parties exacerbate existing societal divisions for quite rational reasons at times when cooperation and unification is needed to heal national wounds and pursue the common good.

Secondly, in many countries with multi-party systems, larger parties have to cobble together a governing coalition in order to form a majority government. In the absence of a single powerful bloc, the government of the day is often held hostage by extremist minor parties who wield disproportionate political influence on government in comparison to their electoral support. Such is the case in Israeli politics where fringe hard-right parties have pushed the conservative and once secular Likud government into an uncompromising position on the most important issues confronting Israeli politics.

Responsibilities of the losing party
Political parties also deepen democracy in two important ways that are salient for Fiji given our difficult political situation these many years.

Political scientists Christopher Anderson et al argue in Losers’ Consent: Elections and Democratic Legitimacy about the critical role that losing parties play in recognizing and accepting the fair and legal transfer of power following national elections.

It is imperative that the losing party acknowledge the necessary transition that must take place in a democratic election and ensure that their supporters accept the results of the ballot box. It is the responsibility of the losing party to educate and if necessary to pacify and discipline its members who refuse to acknowledge the electoral results.

The losing party should and must at all times hold the governments’ feet to the fire and perform its rigorous duty as the loyal opposition but it cannot question the legitimacy of the winning party.

Failure of Fiji's losing parties
This has been a monumental failure on the part of the losing party in Fiji and the crassness of the political leadership to capitalize on the unhappiness of their supporters for short-term political gain. Democracy requires a level of political maturity that is sometimes in short supply, but the consequences of political misbehavior endure for years to come.

I wonder about those groups that enthusiastically supported Rabuka’s Coup in 1987, if they are better of twenty-five years later knowing what they know now. Was it that terrible to let Labour govern for a few years until someone else could make a better argument for leading the country?

Here is a thought experiment; What would have happened had Alliance and the Taukei and the Nationalist and the Methodist Church accepted the decision of the ballot box and dedicated the next five years to educating the people about democracy, public policy, economics, globalization, religious and cultural pluralism, human rights, elections, etc so the next time around the voters were better informed, more enlightened and civic minded when casting their votes. What do you think the election of 1992 would have looked like?

Responsibilities of the winning party
If the losing party has an obligation to accept the legitimacy of the electoral results, then the winning party has the responsibility of governing fairly, prudently, honestly and nationally. In a democracy, political parties often make narrow and focused appeals to the electorate for their support and votes.

However, victory at the polls necessitates that the winning party form a national government which is now in charge of the administration of the whole country. This is a difficult transition to make for parties and politicians wedded to a narrow and parochial agenda, but being in charge means that one is responsible for the well being of the larger community.

What the winning party should not do, and in Fiji often has
Winning political parties often make the mistake of interpreting an electoral victory as a carte blanche mandate to do as they please and selfishly cater to the people that brought them to power.

Once in power, public policies are organized around disenfranchising other communities and embedding the governing party into the key organs of the state through patronage and paybacks. This time around it is the winning party that delegitimizes the democratic process through favouritism and corruption and corroding the public's trust in the efficacy of our governing institutions and structures. Electoral democracy is perceived as a legalized mechanism for acquiring material gain, access and opportunity at the expense of the common good. Winning elections is about enjoying the spoils of victory and the perks it brings, which is why losing elections is often an unacceptable proposition for a lot of political parties across the globe.

Conclusion
The people of Fiji deserve a vibrant and conscientious party system that is willing to pursue the well being of society ahead of a narrow and biased agenda. The citizens of Fiji expect their political representatives to lead the nation forward with vision and goodwill. Winning elections is a worthy goal for political parties because it is an opportunity to advance the democratic project beyond the provincial concerns of party hacks and onto the national stage. It’s time to party in Fiji.

Comments

Anonymous said…
Submission to the Constitutional Commission of Fiji.
By Ian Simpson, Rogorua , Taveuni 3.8.12
P.O.Box 99, Waiyevo.
Ph. 9994187 Email: ims5510@gmail.com

Dear Commissioners,
I will keep this submission brief.
I refer to 1997 Constitution Chapter 6 The Parliament Sections 45 – 74. These, among other sections will either become null and void or require change under a One Party State as proposed by me in this submission.
…........................
I see no future in a multi-party, Westminster system for Fiji. I believe it has not worked for us these past 40 years. The evidence stands clear in the fruit produced. In my opinion the most abhorrent aspect has been racial apartheid, and lack of democracy, all the way down to the local level.
I believe and propose a State sanctioned One Party State. Up to date, elections have cost $30 million plus which equates to $6 million dollars on a year to year basis in a 5 year election cycle. I suggest that $6m can fund or nearly fully fund a state sponsored party in a  democratic structure that engages and gives the whole populace a permanent and inclusive say in the governance and administration of our country.
I think we should have 4 year election cycles within the One Party State, to run for a 4 cycle (16 years) term, before the people may hold a referendum to continue or discontinue with a One Party State.
I also think that participation should be built on the basis of leaders of 10, 100, 1000 and 10,000. With an estimated 600,000 voters, this will give us 60 representatives in the National Congress. This system should avoid the party from being hijacked by any one special interest group or ideology.
Not in any way to pre-empt contributions on the development of the structure of a One Party State, if the people should adopt this proposal, I would like to make a couple of broad suggestions at least, just to give a feel for what is possible. Our National Congress, does not need be limited to 60 seats. I would propose an additional 40 seats or more for a balance that would be drawn from, say one each of the 20 District Guardian Councils (more on this in a separate submission – essentially these are de-centralised district Public Service Commissions ), a number from business, professional and civic organisations, with maybe a rep each from our two Cities. The Central committee, or equivalent of cabinet and other structures in the executive or administration of government can be addressed at a later stage, lets for now stay with the broad strokes of my proposal.
At this point, I make the firm distinction that this proposal of a one party state offers government of “Consensus” and not one of “Adversaries”, that has been practised these past 40 years. All past Prime Ministers have suggested government of National Unity. From our immediate past experience with, 1. a Westminster, multi-party parliament and 2. an experiment with a multi-party cabinet; both, have proven beyond any doubt, their failure in Fiji.
It can be taken as a given that the Party Constitution must reflect the National Constitution, and the People's Charter, in the interim, the Party Manifesto. We all recognise the need for an exit strategy from our present “dictatorship”, but nor do we want to fall back into our past failed system. As stated above, I am proposing a short term solution (16 years) that I believe will strengthen citizenship, unity and civic pride that is essential for a multi party Westminster system to work in the future, if the people should so desire and endorse via referendum.
Cont.

Anonymous said…
Page 2
An active party system with a constant flow of information back and forth, that gives the whole adult population ownership in governance, develops local and national social and economic responsibility, has got to be a better alternative to what we have had these past 40 years, and is being presented once more, of a, once off, one minute moment in a polling booth, once every five years.
The construct of “cells” can and should provide potentially good outcomes.
There will be no constraints other then only being allowed to belong to the one ‘cell’. I can see outcomes that can be desirable, and in fact, sort after, in the constant desire to have a more representative and inclusive democracy i.e.: Women (pop.50%) and youth (pop.80%) in politics.
This will obviate the need for quotas for party membership in the Westminster system, as has been suggested by some; for women, minorities, ageism and such. With OPS, at the base level of the “cell” , all such groups can have representation. There should be no barrier other than ability. In any event, all proposals, emanating from the “cells” , shall be carried forward, to be debated, decided, budgeted, prioritised.
I present an example of a proposal that can start at “Cell” level:
Rogorua Dua, Taveuni(NCTVC03420) Proposal . Budget for $2.5 mil. for each of 20 districts p.a for next 16 years, specifically for economic activity (see detailed sch. 1. attached). Total budget p.a all districts $50 m. Source of funds: Military budget cut by $50m p.a. From $100m> to $50mpa.
Proposal endorsed by Vanua Levu Congress. Ratified by National Congress. Folded into budget. Effected by Central Standing Committee.
With OPS, it will be possible to plan and implement schemes beyond one election cycle. To plan and budget over the next 16 years, can and will lay foundations for serious long term development that is presently absent with resulting lack of economic activity and job creation.

Cont.
Anonymous said…
My concern at this stage is, will this Constitutional Commission consider a Democratic system that has, and is, working in countries such as Japan, Singapore and India, where the people, out of free choice, have pragmatically decided to elect the same party in,over a number of decades, to provide stability and social harmony, with resulting economic progress. I ask that this Commission allow the people of Fiji to be presented with this option. At this point, I am not aware of any political party, group or individual in Fiji that is offering or proposing this option to the people of Fiji, despite it being, I believe, a viable one. From my experience of living in a rural environment all my life, I am confident that what I propose is workable. I know there is a deep well of generosity, goodwill, and tolerance in our communities that will make a “government of consensus” work. For the past 40 years we have had, due to our demographics, 39 years of rule by the the itaukei, and every time there has been a government considered to be Indian or Indian dominated there has been a coup. Not only does this represent racial, but also religious and economic exclusion. The itaukei being a tribal communal society that has been described as “high in consumption and low in productivity” versus individualistic, capitalistic society that is “ high in productivity, low in consumption”. From the local level to the national level, our nation has turned its back on the potential of what inclusive society can contribute. Divide and rule, a colonial construct, has no doubt benefited a minority of our leadership elite, and the keepers of the system, our autocratic civil service bureaucrats.
My request to this Commission is to consider the option I am proposing. If you share my belief in the legitimacy of my proposal then I would appreciate your formal endorsement so that I may present this proposal to the general public of Fiji, and if they should believe as I do in its merit, then they may copy, sign and forward it to your Commission. If there is only this one submission, so be it, but if there should be a large response, then I leave it to you to decide what the tipping point might be before you feel a need to give serious consideration to this proposal. If such a tipping point should be reached, then I respectfully suggest that a referendum might need to be considered, after a proper lapse of time for the populace to be better informed of what a one party state can offer.
Anonymous said…
I am making this proposal as an individual. I have canvassed a number of friends and acquaintances on it, and with some reservations, mainly to the issue of accountability, I have received positive feedback.
To the question of accountability, I respond with the fact that we will be dealing with a state sponsored party system acting under law, with rules and strict disciplinary measures in place, in addition, if we implement a system of decentralised district Public Service Commissions, for want of a better name, District Guardian Councils, then we shall have adequate internal checks and balances within the system , and let us not forget the presence in a democracy of a free and vibrant “fourth estate”. End.

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