Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Democracy in Fiji: Two reasons to worry, two reasons to be confident

Democracy in Fiji: Two reasons to worry, two reasons to be confident
Published 18 Sep 2014   Follow haywardjenny



The count in Fiji's elections is well underway following a smooth, apparently trouble-free poll yesterday. Provisional results are expected today, with the process of allocating seats in parliament to follow. It seems likely that FijiFirst, the party of incumbent Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, will form government.

I argued here (Fiji election: More to do to restore democracy) that elections are only the start of Fiji's transition back to democracy, a sentiment Australia's Foreign Minister echoed last night while welcoming the successful conduct of the elections. From the way the election has been conducted, there are reasons to be confident that Fiji is indeed on the path to building a full democracy. Unfortunately there are also reasons to be worried.

Reasons to be confident:

1. High voter turn-out: reported record numbers of voters coming out to vote indicate public confidence in the process and enthusiasm for participating in democracy. This is important if Fiji's population is ultimately to hold its elected representatives to account and create an impetus for those representatives to do their job.

2. The rise of social media: in Fiji's first election in the age of social media, voters, official observers and journalists excitedly posted photos of the voting experience to Facebook and Twitter. In a country where free speech is constrained and even while a media blackout was in place (which also applied to social media), the determination of Fijians to communicate with each other and with the world about their election bodes well for their willingness to insist on the right to engage openly in public debate.

Reasons to be worried: [fold]

1. A new Secretary-General (Clerk) of the Fiji Parliament was appointed on 16 September, the day before the election. Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum announced that senior civil servant Viniana Namosimalua would be taking on the position, effective immediately. He also announced the appointment of a new Deputy Secretary-General, Mary Qiliaso, to work alongside Namosimalua.

The optics of an unelected incumbent government making such a senior appointment on the eve of the election, and during a media blackout, are poor. But worse, it appears to be unconstitutional. According to Fiji's 2013 constitution, the President elects the Secretary-General in consultation with the Constitutional Offices Commission, which includes the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, Attorney-General, two people appointed on the advice of the Prime Minister and one appointed on the advice of the Leader of the Opposition.

As there is very obviously no leader of the opposition in place prior to the election, it is hard to see who was consulted in this appointment. If Bainimarama does form a government, the apparent disregard from his Attorney-General for the most basic of parliamentary processes does not inspire confidence.

2. Since Rear Admiral Bainimarama stood down from his military commander's role, there has been an expectation that Fiji's military would step back from politics, an expectation supported by statements from Commander Brigadier General Mosese Tikoitoga.

The Fiji Government had said the military would not be involved in pre-election and election-day proceedings, but on the eve of the election, Tikoitoga announced the military was on standby. The military also conducted a highly visible training exercise in a public area on election eve, creating a storm on social media, and marched in the streets of Suva. These actions have unnecessarily and unhelpfully raised the profile of the military at the very time when it should have taken a low profile. 

If the parties, and most importantly the eventual government, act responsibly, my reasons to be worried may disappear and my reasons to be confident may grow. But it is clear Fiji still has work to do to prove its democratic credentials.

You may also be interested in