|Emeritus Prof Crosbie Walsh|
Opinion by Crosbie Walsh
“Over and over, one hears claims from Bainimarama supporters that Fiji now has the most democratic electoral system ever, in which Indo-Fijians are now finally “equal” to indigenous Fijians, with “1 person = 1 vote = 1 value”— Dr Wadan Narsey
The Bainimarama government has promoted the slogan “One person=one person=one value” claiming it is a fairer system than the old First Past the Post and Alternative Vote sytems that preceded it. Dr Wadan Narsey disagrees.
|Dr Wadan Narsey|
Myth 1, he says, is that Indo-Fijians were under-represented in the old system, and cites the election victories of the Bavadra and Chaudhry governments as evidence. My view is that these victories came about because of divisions among Taukei and competition between Taukei parties, not because of the the equal value of the Indo-Fijian vote.
His Myth 2 is that the new system, with its 5% threshold, is unfair to independents and smaller parties.
Further, he doubts the new system will promote inter-racial understanding, which he says was better assured with the previous 46 race-based communal and 25 open electorates (in which all races voted) and the power-sharing provision, that was supposed to result in any party with ten or more percent of the vote being invited to join government.
He concedes that power-sharing was initially unsuccessful with Qarase refusing to allow Chaudhry a place in government but said that it worked well in the end, even though the parliamentary opposition was effectively reduced to one person, Mick Beddoes.
The supposed myth 1: Indo-Fijian underrepresentation
Wadan is correct is saying Indo-Fijians were not particularly under-represented. But they were under-represented and they were not alone.
Comparing the value of Ro Teimumu’s vote in Rewa in 2006 with Mahrendra Chaudhry’s vote in Suva City and Biman Prasad’s vote in his old stamping ground Labasa, for example, would show that Ro Teimumu’s vote was worth 1.7 times that of Chaudhry’s vote and 1.4 times that of Dr Prasad’s.
■ Unequal numbers between types of racially-based electorates
These inequalities are not surprising given the unequal average size of communal electorates. There were on average 9,437 registered voters in the Fijian communal electorates; 10,775 voters in the Indo-Fijian; 16,065 in the Fijian Urban electorates, 4,606 in the General voters and 5,375 in the single Rotuman electorate.
The most disadvantaged voters were not Indo-Fijian, however; they were Taukei voting in the in Fijian Urban electorates whose votes were worth only one-half the value of the average rural Taukei vote . The most over-represented were Rotuman and General (mixed races) voters. Mick Beddoes’ (General voter) vote was worth three and a half times that of his ethnic Fijian urban neighbour and over double that of his Indo-Fijian neighbour!
■ Unequal numbers WITHIN types of electorate
But the inequalities did not stop there. The communal electorates had a very unequal number of voters, ranging from 3,340 (Namosi) to 15,348 (Ba West) and 19,044 for Nadroga/Navosa for Fijian Communal voters; 13 to 19 thousand for Urban Fijians, and 7 to 13 thousand for Indo-Fijians. This make a Taukei vote in Namosi worth nearly six times more than a Taukei vote in Nadroga/Navosa or or an urban Taukei vote in the North West.
In the 25 Open electorates where everyone voted irrespective of race, the most glaring difference was between Suva City with 15,000 voters and their next door neighbours, Cunningham, with 24,000 voters. In this case, the Suva vote was worth more than one and a half times more than the Cunningham vote.
In summary, the system penalised Indo-Fijians a little and urban Fijians —and many rural Fijians a lot,
A closer look at each electorate would show that, in general, the more disadvantaged Fijian voters lived in the urban and more developed provinces where, as a result of better education and exposure to urban influences, the power of the church and chief pressed less heavily on how they voted. Whether intentional or not (and I think it was not) more votes were given to those least likely to use them independently.
The Supposed Myth 2: Inequalities due to the 5% threshold
Wadan is again correct in saying that the new system of voting with its 5% threshold will penalise independents and small parties. So also will the reduction of parliamentary seats from 71 to 50 and a single electorate comprising all of Fiji. But I am not sure this is an undesirable consequence because it should result in a stronger government and less trading of votes in the new parliament.
■ The Old preferential vote system
The new system is far less undesirable than the preferential and Alternative Vote system that previously confused many voters. Confronted with so many candidates to rank, many voters voted “above the line” leaving the party they voted for to decide where their preferences should go.
With candidates requiring 50% of the vote to be elected, the votes of the least preferred candidates were progressively allocated to the candidates remaining, until one passed the 50% threshold.
In the Open electorates this led to fourth preferences being used in two electorates, fifth preferences in five electorates, and seventh and ninth preferences being used in two other electorates.
It is hard to see how the final vote came even close to what those who named candidates by voting “below the line” had intended,. And for those voting “above the line” their chosen party decided where preferences would go, sometimes engaging in temporary alliances to thwart their major opponent.
■ The new Open List system
The new Open List system allows voters to choose any candidate of their choice. In effect, except for votes for independent candidates, voters are voting for a candidate and a party.
Unlike the Closed List system used for example in NZ where parties rank the order of their candidates (and which, incidentally also has a 5% threshold), voters determine the order by which parties select their candidates.
Waden is correct in saying that the number of votes for some of those elected could could be less than the threshold votes required of minor parties and independents but he forgets that votes are passed down the line of list candidates on the basis of the total number of votes cast for all candidates standing for each party. He wrongly compares and confuses individual with party votes.
The 5% threshold may be a little high. A lower threshold has been suggested in New Zealand. And the number of seats may be too few. But a decision to modify the electoral system will have to wait until after this election. I doubt the threshold is a Machiavellian device conjured up by the Attorney-General as Wadan and others have inferred.
In the 2006 elections 13% of those registered did not vote and a further 8.8% had their votes declared invalid, mainly for minor technical irregularities. Polls indicate that a similar proportion may not vote in the coming election but irregularities should be far fewer. Voters can tick, cross or circle their chosen candidate’s number.
No electoral system is perfect and some intended outcomes are not as expected. Fiji’s previous voting system was far from perfect, with significant inequalities between races and electorates. And, as Professor Jonathon Fraenkel admits, the alternative vote (AV), far from helping race relations, multi-racialism and moderation as intended, the system resulted in the emergence of extremism and ethnic polarisation. Moderates were squeezed out. No truly multi-ethnic party emerged and no government was courageous enough to gradually phase out the Communal seats and increase the proportion of Open seats as the Reeves Commission that drafted the 1997 Constitution intended.
A major weakness of the power sharing arrangement of the old system, even when it was working, was that it virtually removed an effective opposition. It is to be hoped that a virile, responsible opposition will emerge after the September election. There need to be checks on government in any democracy but it is hoped also that the privilege to oppose will not be abused. Assuming that FijiFirst will win the election, I think the NFP and PDP have the makings of an effective and responsible opposition. Regrettably, I cannot say the same for SODELPA.
The truly multi-ethnic composition of all political parties contesting the election in four weeks time, other than SODELPA which is overwhelmingly Taukei, holds some promise for the future. The new electoral system has come as close as is humanly possible to make one person=one vote=one value.
The signs are that the new parliament will have more women, more young people, and a wider range of professional talent. But the final outcome, as always with any system, will depend on the calibre of the individual members of parliament on both sides of the House, and the wisdom and discipline of their leaders.