Towards a Promised Democracy

By Toby Ley in Pacific Politics 
Fiji has taken further steps towards promised elections with the registration of three political parties: Fiji Labour Party (FLP), National Federation Party (NFP) and the Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA). Parties still have work to do – they’ve been given until the end of May to submit financial reports and set up administrative offices across the country. The media environment in Fiji presents related challenges, but an opportunity does exist for a national dialogue to take place. Allowing for a diversity of opinion and a respectful competition of ideas will ensure the outcome for both political winners and losers will be positive. 
Party Membership in Fiji
Party Name
Members submitted
Members disallowed
Total members accepted
National Federation Party (NFP)
Fiji Labour Party (FLP)
Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA)

In spite of pessimism surrounding the ability for any party to garner the high membership numbers needed, the three parties registered so far have exceeded expectations and managed to secure membership numbers well above the 5000 required. These high party memberships are encouraging and perhaps signify that despite eight years of rule by the interim government, a strong willingness to engage politically remains. Many Fijians are still keen to engage in vigorous and constructive political campaigns. This ongoing civic-mindedness and hunger for substantial debate is evidence that Fijians have not all given in to cynicism about the process. So far, there have been no real calls to boycott the election.

Apart from accepting the registration of three political parties, the interim government twice heeded calls to extend the draft constitution review timeframe. It has also made a commitment to the region to move to democracy, via its acceptance of $AUD20 million from Papua New Guinea, which is to be used to conduct the promised elections. These are all encouraging steps but it is worth also considering the potential strategic bennefits for the interim government. By letting three parties register and extending the constitutional consultation timeframe, the interim government appears more sincere and can suggest that is has listened and responded to the public. In doing so, it nullifies to a degree some of the most ardent criticisms of some in the population and others overseas. The interim government’s actions may have helped relieve some pressure and frustration in sections of the community and reduced the likelihood of unrest.
At this stage the interim government’s interests would not be served by reducing the number of parties any further

At this stage the interim government’s interests would not be served by reducing the number of parties any further. It would be preferable to go into the election either completely unopposed or against several parties. We have already seen how the conditions placed on the re-registration for old political parties helped to push former adversaries together to form groups like the United Front for a Democratic Fiji (UFDF). It would not be in the incumbent’s interest to go into the election with only itself and one alternative. The greater the number of parties contending, the greater the dispersion of voters with an ‘anyone but Bainimarama’ sentiment and the stronger the chances of the incumbent. However, it is not easy to know with certainty the extent of the Bainimarama-led government’s popularity. While there are many vocal critics online who might suggest that the entire country is ready to revolt, there have been outside polls that would suggest quite differently.

The extent to which critical voices have influenced the interim government’s recent actions is unclear. But allowing public discourse and responsibly responding to it will increase the interim government’s legitimacy and pave the way for greater domestic and international recognition of the future government, regardless of who should be elected. Elections have been promised and cancelled in the past but for the time being, at least, there are some positive signs and the most dire of the interim government’s critics’ predictions have not come to fruition. It is possible that the interim government has been listening to some of the more constructive criticism and will react accordingly.

Given the numerous, well-publicised critiques of the draft constitution, optimists will be hoping that the government will seek to bolster its democratic aspirations and strengthen its legitimacy by incorporating necessary changes into the (unreleased) final version of the draft constitution.

Still more required from political parties

Fiji’s political parties still have more hurdles to jump before it comes to election time. Having managed to register, parties must now submit significant amounts of information relating to their party’s finances and assets. The information applies not only to parties as entities, but to individual politicians and their immediate family members too. While strict, such requirements are not unique to Fiji. Apart from sharing detailed financial information, political parties are also required to set up party offices in each of Fiji’s major administrative divisions and they must do this within 30 days from the date of their registration, or risk being removed as contenders.

The NFP and FLP were the only two, of seventeen pre-coup political parties, that managed to apply before the tight deadline set for old parties. SODELPA, while technically a ‘new’ party, has strong connections with the old party, Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua or (SDL). The requirement for political parties to have 5000 registered members could make it particularly difficult for some smaller parties to find an adequate level of political representation. Leaving aside arguments surrounding the equity of the process, it is worth considering how this high bar could have the effect of creating better grassroots outreach for the political parties that have survived and might even encourage wise parties to invest beyond the minimum requirements.

Media and Democracy

It is well known that Fiji’s media has a hard time reporting on anything overtly critical of the interim government, and perhaps on anything overly negative at all. There have been cases of water shortages to hospitals being censored and half-joking comments by a priest resulting in strongly worded censure and threats of deportation from the top.
After eight years without a democratic opposition, it will be challenging for a media accustomed to authoritarian rule to report on what critical voices are saying. We can only hope that vigorous debates that surround political processes will be allowed to take place. A spirited exchange of competing and conflicting opinions is fundamental to nation-building and allowing a freer flow of ideas will lend legitimacy to the interim government as well as to the eventual victor of the elections. Everyone involved will benefit by resisting the temptation to fall back onto partisan name-calling and labeling. In spite of the challenges of the current media environment, an opportunity exists to invent a national dialogue that allows for diversity of opinion and permits a respectful competition of ideas. The outcome for both political winners and losers, can only be positive, strengthening all participants – and the nation itself.

With the conclusion of the constitutional consultation process, Fijians and the international community wait for the final version of the document. The registration and high membership of three political parties bodes well for the vitality of politics in Fiji but there is a lot of work remaining. Continuing down this road toward democracy, the challenges are significant and success is not guaranteed- but the outcome, if handled properly, will strengthen the nation. If the goal is democracy, then the collective task is clear.


Coup Coup Land said…
Time for another military coup. We can't let Egypt knock Fiji off its perch of utter stupidity, can we?
Democratic Coup Coup said…
The Aussies have taken the prize a long time ago..
Anonymous said…
Unbelievable what these political parties have to do before they can participate in an election which will most probably be rigged anyway. In New Zealand you need 500 members to register a party! What we see here is a multi-layered attempt to make sure that Bainimarama's claim that he will win the elections will come true.
The role of PLACE said…
"If the goal is democracy then the collective task is clear".

Is it? And is the goal democracy? Time for a Barbara Tuchman insight from "The March of Folly" - which has been made available to two Prime Ministers of Fiji. Did they read it? Closely? Reflect upon it and grasp the deep insights into governance across more than four thousand years of human history? Egypt is succumbing to the failure to think through governance and all that it must entail. Now seventeen people (17) have died since yesterday from live shots fired directly at 'The People'. What manner of folly must this be?

"Thomas Jefferson, who held more and higher offices than most men, took the sourest view of it: ('that men seek power over others - only to lose it over themselves' page 478).

'Whenever a man has cast a longing eye (on office)', he wrote to a friend, 'a rottenness begins in his conduct. His contemporary across the Atlantic, Adam Smith, was if anything more censorious. 'And thus the end of half the labors of human life; and is the cause of all the tumult and bustle, all the rapine and injustice which avarice and ambition have introduced into this world.'

Both were speaking of moral failure, not of competence."

"Much of the same opinion in different circumstances was pronounced by General Eisenhower in discussing the need for inspired leaders to create a United States of Europe as the only way to preserve Europe's security. He did not think it would happen, because 'Everyone is too cautious, too fearful, too lazy, and too ambitious (personally).'

"Odd and notable is the appearance of lazy in both catalogues (the former catalogue was of Senator George Norris, who could only find one out of 96 deemed to have the competence, independence and stature for the task (to lead an investigation of the munitions industry. That man was Senator Gerald Nye...deemed to have the 'competence, independence and stature for the task').

"A greater inducement to folly is excess of power....Such indeed was the fate that overtook the Renaissance Papacy to the point of half, if not all, of its power;...and if we consider the American Presidency to confer excess of power - Lyndon Johnson, who was given to speaking of 'MY air force' and thought his position entitled him to lie and deceive; and, most obviously, Richard Nixon".

(The March of Folly - Barbara Tuchman pp478-479 1984)
The Nature of the waves ahead said…
"Leaders in government, on the authority of Henry Kissinger, do not learn beyond the convictions they bring with them; these are the 'intellectual capital they will consume as long as they are in office'. Learning from experience is a faculty almost never practised. Why did American experience of supporting the unpopular party in China supply no analogy to Vietnam? And the experience of Vietnam none for Iran? Any why has none of the above conveyed any inference to preserve the present government of the United States from imbecility in El Salvador? 'If men could learn from history, what lessons it might teach us'! lamented Samuel Coleridge. 'But passion and party blind our eyes, the light which experience gives us is a lantern on the stern which shines only on the waves behind us'.

The image is beautiful but the message misleading, for the light on the waves we have passed through should enable us to infer the nature of the waves ahead."

(The March of Folly - Barbara Tuchman pp 480 1984)
The bystanders who collude in conflict in silence..... said…
The Sierra Leonian writer and former BBC journalist, Aminatta Forna, seems to have much of relevance in her writing to our own experience since 1987 in Fiji. In a Memoir "The devil that danced on the water" and three novels she has written with great knowledge and understanding of the "trauma induced by oppression and silence: above all by a Culture of Silence". She asks that we ask ourselves this question: "What will we be ashamed of for not having done" when we look back aged seventy? She writes of the causes and the consequences of conflict. The indifference of bystanders who become colluders in conflict situations. Her father was hanged for treason twenty-five years before Civil War broke out in Sierra Leone. He had already foreseen the event and the War in Libera foreshadowed the Sierra Leone implosion. "If you've never been through it, you can't get it".
Gatekeeper said…
Does the deportation of a Chinese Drug Lord from Fiji last Saturday with assistance from Chinese Police Officers herald a New Dawn? So many associated traffickers on the ground needing to be ferreted out. How many of them are "one of us"? We need to have the courage to see these vultures OFF. The Culture of Silence about criminal conduct in Fiji must be brought to an end. "What will we be ashamed of for not having done"?

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