Supervisor of Elections
The Pacific Islands Forum insists the Interim Government announce an election date by May 1st and hold an election no later than December, or face further sanctions and possible suspension from Forum membership. This would be a most undesirable outcome for Fiji and the Forum. Qarase and others opposing the Interim Government insist these deadlines can be met. Bainimarama and Chaudhry say they can not. Who is right? Well, they "sort of" both might be. It all depends on what is meant by an election.
The 2006 election took only ten months from the time of registration to the elections. But this was a most imperfect election. Electorate boundaries, based on a ten-year old census, were left unchanged (so no allowance was made for extensive internal migration, especially to Greater Suva where the key Open electorates were located). An elected government was in place, aid money was available, and all political parties co-operated with a fully staffed Elections Office. To assist voter registration and update electoral rolls, the Office conducted a nation-wide door-knocking campaign, which incidentally made it the most expensive Fiji election, in cost per voter, ever.
Despite these arrangements, many of those eligible to vote were not registered (overall registration increased only 2.3% from the 2001 election, far less than population increase); in the 25 Open electorates 13% of those registered did not vote, and the votes of a further 9% were declared invalid. (Non-voters ranged from 5 to 27% across electorates, and invalid votes from 6 to 13%.) The preparation period was clearly rushed, the census used was far too old, and insufficient attention was given to voter education, especially on the complicated Alternative Voting system. One wonders what the results might have been is a less rushed election. As it was, Qarase's SDL party won one critical Open electorate by 5 votes!
Inevitably, those losing the election made charges of irregularities, but at least some seem valid (See link to FHRC Report on 2006 elections in Background Material). Another rushed election, in 2001, was even worse. Some 33% of registered voters either did not vote or had their vote declared invalid! So, it is possible to hold this sort of election before December.
Commonwealth Observer Group Recommendations Ignored. Following the 2006 elections, international observers submitted recommendations for changes to the existing system. The Commonwealth Observer Group report read in part:
These reports, costing $5million, were ignored by the Qarase Government.
‘In putting these (recommendations) forward we are conscious of those made by our colleagues who were members of the 2001 Commonwealth Observer Group. So far as we are aware, only one – the proposal that the number of polling stations should be increased – has been adopted so far.
Preparations for Elections. Charges have been made that the Interim Government has done little to nothing to prepare for an election but this in only true if the following events are ignored: the FHRC investigation into the 2006 elections; conducting the 2007 Census; the appointment of a Boundaries Commission, an Electoral Commission and a Supervisor of Elections; a scoping mission to Samoa to assess electronic voter registration; the setting up of the Elections Office, and the work around the People's Charter and the President's Political Dialogue Forum. Further progress cannot occur until a decision is made on whether to use the existing electoral system, or a new one. This will be discussed at the PPDF starting on 13th March. But even with the old system and updated current rolls, December is much too early.
The Office of the Supervisor of Elections, headed by New Zealand lawyer Felicity Heffernan, issued a White Paper on 18 September last year. The paper, Planning Concepts Or Technical Road Map of Factual Operations/ Risks, noted "constraints" on her office that made it difficult to meet international standards, and offered three scenarios on the time needed to prepare for elections.
The constraints included the current state of the electoral rolls; media interference; the mistaken belief that her office is not neutral; the absence of effective means of communication with the public; inability to undertake voter education until the system of elections is known; delays in State and donor funding; not having an external relations manager ("so the international and national media do not ruin the work of the Elections Office on a daily basis for transparency and neutrality as is currently happening"); not having the equipment to operate; the political matrix – e.g., boycotting by certain influential actors; inability to rehire core staff; and factors outside the EO's control, e.g., political delays, parties pull out, and deadlocks etc. all of which impacted on the EO ability to delivery operational functions.
Minimum Time to Elections: Three Scenarios. The Elections Office's "technical roadmap" on the minimum time needed before elections can be held is based on three scenarios:
A. The present alternative voting system and updating of current electoral rolls. Time needed: 11 to 14 months.
B. A reformed electoral system and updating of current electoral rolls. Time needed: 9.5 to 12.5 months.
C. A reformed electoral system and electronic registration. Time needed: 10.5 to 13.5 months.
The clock can only start ticking towards one of these times when well-known political issues are resolved (hopefully at the PPDF meeting) and the Elections Office is fully geared to go. There is no way elections of any sort can be held by December -- but May may not be too early to announce an election date.
Meanwhile, the Elections Office says it will -
"continue to plan and prepare for elections in its capacity as a neutral and independent entity in delivering a credible and sustainable electoral system for Fiji within an achievable operational timeframe."
Finally, I'm left wondering why the widely distributed White Paper was ignored by those to whom it was sent. Recipients included all High Commissions and Embassies, including Australia and New Zealand, the European Parliament, the European Union, the European Community, the Commonwealth, the United Nations, the Ministerial Contact Group, Transparency International, the Citizens Constitutional Forum and various other parties. And why Australia, New Zealand and other PI Forum members then imposed a December deadline they knew Fiji could not meet?