By Crosbie Walsh
I asked a reader what he would like to see in the lead up to the elections. He replied, "Bainimarama enters the election contest in a position of strength and from my point of view, he can afford to be much much more accommodating than he has shown in the past." This also is my opinion.
The incumbent nearly always has an advantage and with PER behind them, the obvious popularity of Bainimarama, a strong and loyal military and police force, and MIDA and election offices in place Bainimarama and Fiji First can afford to relax a little and be more heedful of genuine critical suggestions.
This will not be easy for Bainimarama. He is a military man accustomed to being obeyed. But as a civilian now seeking the highest elected post in the country he needs to adopt new and more inclusive approaches. Only in this way will he succeed in his ambition to build a new and better Fiji. My reader thinks Bainimarama is unlikely to change but hopes that if he wins the election "after another four years ... democracy [will have] a better chance to work." I am more optimistic. Bainimarama is no fool and he has able advisors.
The reader thinks that after eight years of dictatorship, "Fiji is in a much more delicate situation compared to mature democracies ... it is not the same as running an election in Australia where no one would question the independence of the electoral commission because it has a long track record." It is therefore understandable that the independence of the Electoral Commission will be questioned.
He fears "the election campaigning will completely degenerate into a mud slinging contest with little or no room to openly discuss policy differences that would allow voters to make an educated judgement about their preference." I agree with him on the need for extra transparency on the Commission and similar issues but I hope his predictions will prove wrong. Only time will tell, But if Bainimarama is to be more reconciliatory, so too must his opponents.
Another reader set out what he thought were the attributes of true statesmanship. "We have to look at some of the extra-ordinary human qualities that a person needs in order to become a true statesmen. It is clear that just name, fame , fortune, gift of the garb, good looks, academic degrees, solid family background, good track record, spending millions in campaigns will not cut the mustard. A true statesman must have that something more, above and beyond the ordinary. I may not have the right answer but in my mind a truly great statesmen must have solid principles, a moral compass, a vision, ability to build consensus and, of course, charisma."
If we focus on one of these ideal traits, the ability to build consensus across the political spectrum, and more importantly across the nation, trust is needed.
In my view, Government, Bainimarama and the Fiji First party need to pay attention to the following issues, most of which have been raised many times by others:
- Bainimarama and Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum must declare their incomes and assets.
- Outstanding public audits must be conducted and the results made public.
- More assurances are needed on land: the land bank, leases, minerals, foreign participation.
- Foreign-funded NGOS should be able to conduct voter education subject to monitoring by the Electoral Commission. The Bainimarama Government cannot be seen as the only educator.
- Government must be seen to be assisting a level playing field in the lead up to the elections. One possibility would be the appointment of a leading political opponent to the Electoral Commission (similar to the Leader of the Opposition in the 2013 Constitution).
- The police must finalise their investigations into alleged abuses.
- The military and police should be warned against "over reactions" in the lead up to the elections.
- Fiji First needs to repeat that some decrees will be revisited after the elections, most especially the Essential Industries Decree.
- Government and Fiji First should invite public discussion and debate on Government's record. For example, on race and citizenship, language, land and environment.
- Women, youth and ethnic minorities must be seen to be protected in law. A woman's and youth wings could be established, similar to SODELPA.
- The sustainability of the infrastructure loans must be further explained.
- Government should urge Australia and NZ to ask the Commonwealth and EU to resume their full assistance for the sugar industry.
- The public needs to be better informed on Fiji's new international relations and shown how they may benefit the country.
- Fiji First needs to widely publicise Government's multicultural work. For example, Taukei and Hindi languages in schools.
- Fiji First should welcome dialogue and listen to opposition arguments. My reader said, "A clear statement by Bainimarama that he welcomes constructive policy debate with everyone."
- Most especially, Government should reconsider the requests for more details on the voting card.
- Fiji First must stand on Government's record and not stoop to mud slinging with its opponents.
- Fiji First must ensure it has a well balanced list of candidates, with many well known and respected across Fiji.
- Fiji First should perhaps float ideas on possible new structures for provincial and municipal councils, and advisory committees to replace and enlarge on the responsibilities of Senate.
- Consideration could perhaps be given to releasing George Speight after the elections. Ask what peoople think.
- Fiji First should say who (which parties) it would be prepared to work with in government.
Generally, those supporting Bainimarama and Fiji First need to be more flexibility and more willing to listen to contrary views. It will take many years to rid Fiji of the antagonisms produced in the wake of the 2006 Coup, but the first steps towards reconciliation can be taken now — by Government.