It has been standard practice for a while that the interim government of Fiji and its leader, Rear Admiral JV Bainimarama, makes big announcements late in the day or during weekends. Last weekend proved no exception.
On Friday, we learned that the first elections to be held in eight years will take place on 17 September, with the day to be designated a public holiday. Mohammed Saneem was named Supervisor of Elections and the Electoral Decree was released. Then on Sunday, Bainimarama announced he would be forming and registering a political party to contest the elections. The party will be called Fiji First and, among other things, it has a campaign bus.
It may be instructive to take a closer look at these developments and some others that are a little less recent to assess Fiji's political landscape.
Regarding the election date, any concerns that the interim government would call snap elections and catch everyone off guard appear to have been laid to rest. The leaders of the four registered political parties generally welcomed the early announcement of the date, although Fiji Labour Party (FLP) leader Mahendra Chaudry apparently complained that there is insufficient time to prepare. Mr Chaudry has more pressing concerns, with the commencement of his trial on charges of breaching the Exchange Control Act. If he is found guilty, he will be ineligible to stand in the elections. This is a fate that has already befallen another veteran of Fiji politics, Laisenia Qarase.
We have been told that none of the 13 candidates for the position of Electoral Supervisor met the selection criteria and that the first choice for appointment (Laurie McGrath, an Australian consultant to the appointments panel) was unavailable. And so, the acting Permanent Secretary of Justice has taken on the role with Michael Clancy as his deputy. The only real complaint about Saneem's appointment has come from the leadership of the FLP and is based on his lack of experience in electoral matters. Otherwise, the appointment appears to be considered a good one.
The Electoral Decree is a 55-page document that covers the entire range of processes and procedures associated with elections.
It goes into great detail about things such as how campaigning can and cannot be conducted, the procedures for determining the construction of the ballot paper and much more. Of concern is the impact of section 115, which makes it unlawful for organisations, including NGOs, who receive foreign assistance or funding to...
...engage in, participate in or conduct any campaign (including organising debates, public forum, meetings, interviews, panel discussions, or publishing any material) that is related to the election or any election issue or matter...
As David Lambourne (an Australian lawyer working in Kiribati) pointed out to me, there does not appear to be a time limit on the application of this provision, which creates an even greater limitation for civil society. Fiji has historically had a well organised and active civil society which would be expected to play a significant role in the election. The Citizens' Constitutional Forum (CCF), a prominent democracy and human rights advocacy NGO, has said it does not believe section 115 applies to it, but it will seek legal advice. The prohibition does not apply to events organised by universities.
The announcement of Fiji First as the fifth party was of some moment. The campaign bus has already been put to good use and the first Fiji First candidate has been announced: Dr Jiko Luveni, currently Minister for Women, Social Welfare and Poverty Alleviation.
There has been discussion about whether Bainimarama has used public money to promote his political interests and we can expect that to continue for the duration. Mick Beddoes, a former parliamentarian and current leader of the United Front for a Democratic Fiji, has lodged an official complaint with police against the interim PM and others, alleging breaches of the Political Parties (Registration, Conduct, Funding and Disclosures) Decree No 4 of 2013. This may be the first test of the interim PM's commitment to abiding by his own rules.
There have been other interesting developments regarding Fiji's political parties. The interim leader of the proposed National Youth Party, Nayagodamu Korovou, has confirmed a departure from the earlier position that this faction would join the party to be led by Bainimarama. And the National Federation Party announced a change in leadership; for the first time in its history it has an indigenous Fijian president, Tupou Draunidalo. The new party leader is academic Biman Prasad. Whether a combination of this type is sufficient to achieve the national appeal necessary to secure victory at the polls remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, recent statements by Ro Teimumu Kepa, the new leader of the Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA), have a definite 'back to the future' ring to them, as they include resurrecting both the 1997 constitution and the Great Council of Chiefs. This rhetoric is not surprising; it formed the basis of SODELPA's submission to the Ghai constitutional commission in 2012. There is no doubt it appeals to a certain significant constituency, predominantly Christian indigenous Fijians and an older demographic. But it is debatable whether that will be enough to get them across the line come September.
Needless to say, all of this activity has generated a great deal of comment both within Fiji and elsewhere. Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop welcomed Friday's announcements. She also referenced the significance of two Australian officials operating at very senior levels within the Electoral Commission as deputy supervisor and director of operations.
The governments of Australia and New Zealand also subsequently lifted their remaining travel bans. This is a continuation of the assertive approach Bishop has followed since taking up her position. While some have warmly welcomed the move, it is not without risk. If the elections do not go ahead or if there are blatant abuses of process, including denial of constitutional and other human rights, Australia may be exposed. Of course, having put the arrow of travel bans back into the sling, it will be available for re-use.
It is useful to take a wider perspective on what is happening in Fiji. It is not the first country to transition from military rule to democratic government. What history tells us is that democracy is a process, not a product. The September elections are part of this transition process but they are only the beginning.
Paul Buchanan has looked at how this process has played out elsewhere. It commences with an election in which a former military leader achieves formal legitimacy by winning a contest which he had very little chance of losing. It is only at the next election, or possibly the one after that, when democracy has become more meaningfully (re)-established and there is a real possibility of power changing hands, that individual and institutional commitments are truly tested.