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Fiji constitutional referendum? Unlikely

Fiji constitutional referendum? Unlikely
Published 28 Mar 2013   Follow haywardjenny

Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama has released the much anticipated Fiji draft constitution, an extensive revision of the 2012 draft released by the Constitutional Commission, led by international constitutional law scholar Yash Ghai.

The draft constitution marks a milestone in Bainimarama's 'road map' to democracy in Fiji, to be completed by September 2014. But in presenting the draft, Bainimarama also announced that he had abandoned his earlier decision to appoint a constituent assembly to consider the draft and instead appealed directly to the people of Fiji for feedback. Initially, a two-week timeframe was placed on public feedback.

The draft constitution is consistent with the so-called Yash Ghai constitution in its emphasis on democratic values and the protection of human rights, including for the first time the protection of social and economic rights such as the right to adequate food and water, social security, health, and a clean environment. But it has faults, not least of which is a lack of proper definition of the role of the military in Fiji.

Critiques of the draft constitution can be found here, here and here. For its part, the Fiji Government has produced a fact sheet promoting the constitution on its official website. [fold]

The Government also published feedback guidelines, outlining how to send feedback on the draft constitution by 5 April. The Government also announced that there will be public forums next week as part of the consultation process.

An important part of the ultimate acceptance of a new constitution in any country is the credibility of the process in producing the final document. The drafting process in Fiji would struggle to pass the credibility test because the Government trashed the draft proposed by the Constitutional Commission, abandoned its commitment to call a constituent assembly, and is allowing a very short time for consultation (over the Easter holiday period).

It is also not clear how feedback from the public will be absorbed and incorporated into the text. While there were over 7000 submissions to the original Constitutional Commission, the Government has not indicated whether it took these into consideration in its drafting. The restrictions on the media in Fiji constrain the role it could play in hosting national debate on the constitution.

As the example of Indonesia has shown, transitioning to democracy is a long process. Fiji's government may have met one of its own milestones, but there is still some way to travel in managing the transition.

Bainimarama has announced that he intends to stand for election in September 2014. His criticism of political parties suggests he may be preparing the ground to prevent the two parties which have already applied for registration from competing in the elections. And his proposed constitutional restrictions on candidate eligibility appear designed to prevent many of his popular rivals, who have been before the courts on various charges or living outside Fiji, from standing. 

It is still early, but the Prime Minister looks to have a strategy for removing any obstacles in the way of his claiming victory in the elections.

However clever this strategy is, it does nothing to build Bainimarama's image as a credible civilian democratic candidate for the prime ministership, and he does need to cultivate this image if he is to claim a truly popular mandate. If he wants to live up to his promise that Fiji will return to democracy in 2014 he would benefit from at least trying to introduce the appearance of democratic process now.

For the first time in Fiji, the draft constitution allows change to the constitution through referendum. If the Fiji Government is to trust the views of its citizens to change the constitution through referendum, why not trust them with the draft? Bainimarama says he wants feedback from the people. He should stand by his own words and put the draft constitution to referendum.

This initiative would have a number of benefits: he would be seen to be genuine about seeking public endorsement, which would help his questionable democratic credentials; it would give much needed legitimacy and credibility to the constitution-making process; and it would give the government an opportunity to test its new voting systems before the elections next year. The worst that could happen from Bainimarama's point of view is that the people reject the constitution and he has to go back to the drawing board and redraft it.

But does the Prime Minister have the courage to trust the people? Probably not.

Image of the Fiji coat of arms courtesy of Wikipedia.

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