Anticipation is building in Fiji ahead of next month’s general election but the country’s expatriate community living abroad is showing little interest. Despite many registration drives, reports Asia-Pacific Journalism, only a fraction of Fijians living overseas have registered to vote.
Report – By Struan Purdie
As the final countdown to Fiji’s first post-coup election gets underway, voters in the country are set to make their voice heard with more than 90 percent registering to vote.
Almost 576,000 people in the Pacific nation have enrolled ahead of the country’s first elections since former Rear Admiral Voreqe Bainimarama’s 2006 coup.
However, for Fijian expats living abroad it’s a different story.
In New Zealand, less than 14 percent of Fijians eligible to vote have registered – this from a country with an official count of nearly 15,000 expats living here, though some estimate the number to be higher.
The Coalition for Democracy in Fiji (CDF) says many Fijians are not interested in the election because New Zealand has become their new home.
This is certainly the case for Fijian expat Vika Frazer.
“I’ve lived here nearly 40 years so this is home to me. I have no desire to go back and live there… or to vote,” she says defiantly.
“Worried… yes, I’m worried,” she replies after a long pause.
“I think what he [Bainimarama] says is going to happen is not going to happen.
“I think it going to be one of those elections with a shotgun at your head,” she says.
“It’ll be very hard for someone else to win.”
And Frazer isn’t alone in her scepticism.
“I think there’s a bit of disenchantment and disillusionment with what’s been going on in Fiji with the military coups,” says CDF spokesperson Nik Naidu.
“A lot of people are thinking, ‘why should we bother? It’s not going to make any difference’.”
However, scepticism alone does not explain the dismal registration rates among Fijians living abroad.
Although Fiji launched two separate delegations specifically to register Fijians expats in New Zealand, less than 2000 registered to vote.
The first delegation arrived in October last year and carried out registrations for eight days in an Auckland shopping mall.
But political sociologist Dr Steven Ratuva, of Auckland University’s Centre for Pacific Studies, says the visit was not well publicised.
“It was almost like it was a secret mission of some kind – not very many people new about it,” says Dr Ratuva.
A second campaign was then launched with teams setting up registration offices in the main centers.
Although this was an improvement, Fiji’s Election Minister Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum admits it is not ideal.
“We realistically cannot go to every single Fijian in New Zealand,” he told reporters at a press conference in Fiji.
“But we’re hoping that it will generate enough publicity that people will actually come over [to the registration sites].”
Initial estimates by Sayed-Khaiyum put the cost of the registration drives at F$40,000, but the final figure is unclear.
Dr Ratuva says it is the first time Fiji has systematically gone out to register people living abroad.
“Perhaps it’s a good lesson for the future in how they can put into place logistics, which are adaptable enough to cope with the diversity of locations of Fijians overseas,” he says.
Electoral officials are not the only ones to visit New Zealand in the lead up to this year’s election.
So far four of Fiji’s political parties have campaigned in New Zealand, including Bainimarama’s Fiji First party.
The visit sparked huge interest among Fijians with hundreds of supporters and protesters packing the Manukau Event Centre to hear the self-appointed prime minister speak.
However, Dr Ratuva points out that many of parties, including Fiji First, scheduled their visits after the registration period for voting closed.
“There was a lot of interest generated by the political parties when they came, but a lot of people that turned up to listen to them were not registered.”
Dr Ratuva says many Fijians living in New Zealand may regret not enrolling to vote.
“Maybe there was a lack of interest at the beginning by some, but after the political parties came and did their campaign, that would have stirred a bit of interest in their hearts.”
While the official number of Fijians living abroad is not known, registration centres were set up throughout the Pacific as well as North America, Europe and the Middle East.
New Zealand is not the only country to suffer from low registration rates, with figures from Australia revealing dismal results.
Despite a F$115,000 campaign to register eligible voters in the country, just 664 of Australia’s 57,000 Fijians were enrolled.
Worldwide, approximately 5000 Fijian expats have registered to vote on September 17.
Although Fijians living abroad make up a relatively small percentage of the voting population, Naidu says the Fijian diaspora play an important role in Fiji’s politics and economy.
“They do a lot of lobbying and they can influence the vote among their family because they tend to be the more educated people who’ve left,” he says.
Cynicism and hope
“There will always be more coups in Fiji.”
When it comes to the future of politics in the country, Nik Naidu does not hold high hopes.
Naidu has been campaigning for “true democracy” in Fiji for more than a quarter of a century and has developed a realistic approach to politics.
Although he says there has been numerous times where CDF has considered its role in restoring Fijian democracy completely, these days Naidu does not hide his scepticism.
“All we’ll see going forward, is that every time a situation occurs when the military is not satisfied, the military will step in,” he says wearily.
“So unfortunately our organisation will always have a role to play.”
However, there are some who are still hopeful ahead of the election and see the worth in participating.
“It is important – that’s why I’ve kept my Fijian citizenship,” says Arieta Buwawa.
Despite living in New Zealand for almost four decades, Buwawa is determined to have her say in the upcoming vote.
“Our families are still there so we want to be a part of what’s happening back at home,” she says.
“It’s important for us as Fijians.”
Struan Purdie is a BCS (Hons) student on the Inclusive Journalism Initiative (IJI) programme at AUT University who is reporting on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course.