Saturday, September 20, 2014

Democracy in Fiji a tender plant – now time to nourish it for the future

The Multinational Observer Group sees Wednesday's general election as a credible expression of “the will of the Fijian voters”. Video: Alistar Kata/Pacific Media Centre/Pacific Scoop

By Fiji affairs columnist and blogger Dr Crosbie Walsh

UNFORTUNATELY, it had to happen but all is not lost.

It started with Fiji Labour Party leader and former Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry – deposed in the 2000 attempted coup – complaining about a minivan showing a Fiji First sticker during the blackout period and another alleged election breach when a disabled voter at St Joseph’s in Suva was assisted by an election officer with no witness present.

Then there were complaints that the counting had stopped when all that had stopped were the announcements, and Radio New Zealand International quoted an unnamed SODELPA official saying its agents had noted anomalies in the transmission and counting of votes, and Fiji Leaks claimed the Multinational Observer Group (MOG) were having “a good holiday in Fiji”.

And then someone calling himself Thakur Loha Singh on a blog said he’d heard of a polling station where the votes of relatives of a candidate mysteriously disappeared and the candidate ending up with a zero vote.”

He said he’d “forewarned political parties of this some time ago.” Not a shred of evidence — but he made sure his prophecy came true.


Then there was a lull. SODELPA talked about “democracy at work”, “respecting the will of the people” and the “need to go forward” and the National Federation Party (NFP) said: “We respect the choice of the people of Fiji.”

Many countries, including Australia and New Zealand, sent their best wishes, and the Multinational Observer Group (MOG) said that it was satisfied with the process and outcome.

And then came the storm.

Provisional results
Later the same day, Thursday, when the provisional results showed overwhelming support for coup leader Voreqe Bainimarama's Fiji First (32 seats projected), SODELPA (14 seats), NFP with 3 seats and no other party even close to the 5 percent threshold, there were hints that the opposition parties would meet.

And later still came the announcement, read by Mick Beddoes (whose votes were too few for him to become an MP), in the presence of a dignified Ro Teimumu (in a reversal of her earlier position), a calm Lydia Tabuya (who will be missed in the new Parliament), and an agitated Mahendra Chaudhry (whose FLP, at that stage, had won only 2.4 percent of the total votes): The elections had been rigged!

Former Opposition Leader Mick Beddoes with “evidence”
of election tampering … poor showing
at the polls. Image: Republika
Beddoes said evidence, supplied by their agents at polling stations, was that the election was rigged, citing the removal of ballot papers before they were counted and tampering of ballot boxes. The complaint was later lodged with the Electoral Commission.

The Minister for Elections, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, discounted the claim, saying that the proper procedure was to complain to the supervisors of polling stations when irregularities were suspected (and this had not been done) and to the Supervisor of Elections with evidence, which at that time had also not been done.

Two observations and a recommendation
I will wait for the final assessment of the MOG and the Electoral Commission but at this stage I have two observations and a recommendation:

First, I suspect the rally of opposition parties was organised by Mick Beddoes in his role as spokesman for the United Front for a Democratic Fiji, and motivated in part by his poor showing in the polls. I’m surprised he did not see that few ethnic Fijians voting for SODELPA would vote for him.

Beddoes talked earlier of SODELPA working from its natural ethnic base and evolving or “becoming” a multi-ethnic party. Preliminary results show that none of the three Indo-Fijian and two “Other” candidates came anywhere close to winning a SODELPA seat. I’m surprised Mick miscalculated so badly.

Mahendra Chaudhry was the other organiser who spoke out at the rally. I think he is now a spent force in Fiji politics and the once proud FLP has no future unless, as candidate Dr Rohit Kishore said, it has a new leader. Mahendra’s son, Rajendra, writing from self-imposed exile in Sydney certainly has not helped his father’s cause.

Secondly, it would take massive rigging, not one or two suspected procedures at a small number of polling stations, to change the result.

The provisional vote for Fiji First exceeds the vote of all the other parties combined. Well over 100,000 votes would need to have been tampered with under the eyes of the elections supervisors, international observers and party agents. The possibility of such an occurrence defies belief.

Recommendation
The respective parties should now be reconsidering their roles in the new Parliament. Fiji First has announced its policies and earlier spoke of a code of ethics and quality MPs. Fiji now needs to see the promises kept.

SODELPA and NFP need to push aside the “traditional” role of Westminster oppositions that criticise and obstruct every action by government. This may work in older democracies but it has never worked in Fiji.

They need to help Fiji really “move forward” by selectively supporting and criticising the work of government, and making helpful proposals of their own.

The media, and the blogs, need to do likewise. Peter Firkins in the blog FijiToday writes that it will now “turn heat on the elected government“. I would hope it joins me in scrutinising both government and opposition.

Fiji Coup4.5, the day before, asked “Is this D-Day for the Thug?” .  A blog that started as a reasonable critic of government degenerated into an unprincipled rumour-maker, and much the same can be said of most other anti-Bainimarama blogs.

Without “born again” experiences, they have no further useful part to play in the future of Fiji.

The time for recrimination and point scoring is over.

Each party in Parliament needs to extend a reconciliatory hand in friendship and listen to what each other says. Democracy in Fiji is still a very tender plant that will need gentle, principled nourishment from everyone who says they love democracy and Fiji.

Dr Crosbie Walsh is emeritus professor of the University of the South Pacific and retired founding director of USP’s Development Studies programme. He now lives in New Zealand and publishes the independent blog Fiji: The Way it Was, Is and Can Be. This article is republished from Pacific Scoop.

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