Political Round Up: Third Week in March
No earth-shaking events occurred on Fiji's political scene this week. Internationally, the Commonwealth agreed to let Fiji take part in Edinburgh Games, but not in Commonwealth councils (a FBCL poll showed 29% not wanting to rejoin the Commonwealth) and Ratu Epeli, visiting Palau, hoped the Micronesian islands would join the Fiji-sponsored Pacific Islands Development Forum.
Locally, winds and floods caused by Tropical Cyclone Lusi have subsided but the cases of dengue fever continue to increase. Some 24,000 people are likely to be affected before the end of the wet season, the worst outbreak since 1995. Sugar milling figures were disappointing with tonnages less than last year, despite efforts to improve the industry's infrastructure. Lapsed leases and fewer Indo-Fijian farmers continue to take a toll. An ANZ banker expected the country's growth rate to exceed 3% this year, a figure supported by some local authorities and disputed by others, notably Dr Wadan Narsey, and foreign reserves now stand at a record $1.8 billion.
Taukei numbers in business could have declined since 2006, if Fiji Indigenous Business Council membership figures are any indication. They have dropped from 136 to 35, partly, they claim, due to a lack of Government support.
There could have been a change in policy in the Fiji Sun that is now publishing fewer letters to the editor compared with the Fiji Times but it generally continues to publish a good mix of pro- and anti- articles which is more than can be usually said of the Times.
Wadan Narsey published another bulletin during the week. Through essentially anti-Government, the bulletins do invite readers to raise important issues with those they may vote for. Ratu Jone Madraiwiwi's article, "Beyond a Culture of Silence", published earlier today, is another important read.
Bainimarama, promoted on his retirement from the RFMF to rear-admiral of the 300-man navy (sic!) is set to register his political party on 22 April and announce full details in May. Electoral regulations details have still not been announced and while the work of the Electoral Commission continues there is still no appointment of the commissioner. Opposition parties claim this disadvantages their campaigns while Bainimarama campaigns even before his party in registered. Party registrations must stop 60 days before the Elections and campaigning two weeks beforehand. Opposition parties are also chuffed because Bainimarama is obviously privy to the regulation details, as evidenced by his statement in Lau this week that, contrary to earlier statements, voting may also take place one day before and one day after election day.
A recent surprise was the dissolution of the Public Accounts Committee preventing public knowledge of the use of public moneys, though the A-G, in making the announcement, said the committee would be re-formed after the new Parliament sits with full access to past incomes and expenditures. The committee, amongst other things, is charged with the responsibility of auditing the affairs of the six government commercial companies and statutory authorities, namely, Airports Fiji Ltd, Fiji Ships & Heavy Industries Ltd, Yaqara Pastoral Company Ltd, Fiji Ports Corporation Ltd, Ports Terminal Ltd and Fiji Electricity Authority. The ongoing lack of audit transparency leaves Government wide open to opposition charges, some, all or none of which may be accurate.
Transparency International Fiji and other NGOs met during the week with the Electoral Commission when they were told by Commission Chairman, Chen Bunn Young "the Electoral regulations will be released probably this week." Given the number of "probables" not realized, it may have been better to use the the more expandably elastic word "soon".
TIF Executive Director, Apisalome Tudreu, said his organization will be "focusing on developing understanding among people on good leadership and what a transparent and accountable government is." Work on civic education is essential but, if Ratu Jone Madraiwiwi's analysis (see "Beyond a Culture of Silence") is correct, there is no guarantee it will be effective among ordinary Taukei.
Also attending the meeting, Fiji Women’s Rights Movement Programme Director, Tara Chetty said they are looking to empower women to participate as voters and candidates. If a Fiji Live poll is any indication, she will have here work cut out. One half of those polled (mostly, I think, men) did not want more women in parliament. In another Fiji Live poll, readers were asked whether it should be compulsory to vote in the 2014 Election. Opinions were equally divided, but there is never any indication of the numbers answering in these polls. If Tweedle Dee said yes and Tweedle Dum said no, that would be an equally divided opinion. To be even remotely useful, the polls should show numbers and major characteristics of those answering such as age, sex (and if possible, race) .
The Electoral Commission wants to learn as much as possible what NGOs are doing and whether they will be extending their work to include voter education. The other NGOs represented were the Citizens Constitutional Forum, Pacific Centre for Peace-building, National Council of Women Fiji, Soqosoqo Vakamarama and FemLink Pacific. The Commission and the NGOs thought the meeting useful.
Meanwhile, Fiji's largest organisation representing more than 280,000 Hindus, the Sanatan Dharm Pratinidhi Sabha of Fiji, is urging its members to participate in the general election. General secretary Vijendra Prakash said more than 190,000 of its members could be voting for the first time. The Sabha had been talking to its members and educating them on the democratic process, and helping them to make "a good decision", he said.
SODELPA will hold a meeting next weekend for its biggest constituency, the Central Division to appoint office bearers. “We will elect these officials as we would like to nominate them in our General Assembly which is expected in May,” General Secretary Pio Tabaiwalu said. The party hopes to announce its candidates next week.
If SODELPA becomes the next government, it promises to return to the system of race-based scholarships, claiming that Government's Tertiary Loan Scheme disadvantages Taukei. Bainimarama says more Fijian youth than ever before now have access to tertiary education under the new toppers scholarship and Government loan scheme, and reverting to the old system would rob many students "to pursue their dreams with a university education". He also said the previous system "lacked transparency where people accessed scholarships depending many times on who you were or who you knew."
SODELPA's Dr Tupeni Baba, said SODELPA will not change its stand as the new system has not been approved by an elected parliament. Fine, that's obvious, and it obviously will sound good to some Taukei electors, but it evades the question of which system is fairer and whether Taukei youth are really at a disadvantage.
The Fiji Sun reports that FLP leader Mahendra Chaudhry, granted permission to travel abroad even though this tax-evasion case is still pending, will address a forum hosted by the Australian-based Fiji Democracy and Freedom Movement (FDFM) in Sydney tonight when he will "update Fijians about the political situation."
In her opening remarks to the Rewa Provincial Council meeting today, SODELPA leader Ro Teimumu Kepa said,
“If the religious beliefs and links to the Vanua is right, it will bring about prosperity”which pretty much echoed her inaugural speech to SODELPA, and surely must leave thinking people to wonder about the quality and usefulness of her political leadership.
One reader writes, "What I see is a real danger that the uneducated electorate in Fiji will be manipulated by the old racist, undemocratic parties to vote for them ..."
And another, "If the SODELPA and its future coalition are going to loose the election.....they need to come up with a vote winning policy that has never been tested before by any political party. Only the Vote Winning policy and a totally new set of candidates can defeat the Bainimarama campaign strategies. Those political parties (should) not field any former parliamentarians in the coming election...."