The Electoral Decree is now out.
There are some elements in there (such as a ban on party sheds around polling stations) to ensure that the electoral process is fair.
However, there are some inherent elements which suggest that voting may turn out to be a nightmare for thousands of voters.
There will be only one national “constituency” to elect 50 parliamentarians.
There will probably be 50 candidates each from five parties (including Rear Admiral’s Bainimarama’s prospective party) suggesting a maximum of 250 party candidates.
The sample ballot paper at the end of the decree contemplates 280 candidates (280 squares) — though there may be more or less (including independents).
The decree therefore expects the voter to choose one square out of a massive ballot paper with 280 squares.
Each square will only have a number, in sequence, starting with 135 and (if there are 280 squares) going up to 414. Numbers will be randomly allocated to these candidates.
The problem is that the ballot paper will not have names, or photos, or party symbols which the voter can easily recognise, only the numbers.
In the polling booth, and also publicised all around the country before polling, will be some kind of information with all the candidates, with their numbers, names and photos (it is not clear whether party symbols will be allowed).
Each voter must note and remember the three-digit number of the candidate they want .
Then, in the polling booth, the voter will have to locate this three-digit number on the ballot paper, and circle, tick or cross the one square which contains their chosen number, out of these 280 squares.
The voting nightmare
There are hundreds of thousands of voters throughout Fiji, who may have great difficulty in remembering the numbers of their preferred candidates.
If they cannot remember, they will have to find their preferred candidate based on the information inside the polling booth, with all the names and photos of candidates, supposedly in less than two minutes.
Some political parties or candidates might quite sensibly think that they could help their supporters to take a small piece of paper, with the number of their preferred candidate written down. But Section 52 (2) of the Electoral Decree states: “It shall be unlawful for any person to bring into a polling station or polling venue any type of paper or any specimen or sample of a ballot paper or any card or instruction on how to vote.”
Section 52 (3) then warns voters: “If the Supervisor or presiding officer has reasonable suspicion that a voter is in breach of subsection (2), he or she may request the assistance of a police officer to search the voter, and it shall be lawful for a police officer to take such measures as necessary to conduct a search of the voter.”
Many decent law-abiding citizens of this country, exercising their right to make an informed choice in the election by taking a piece of paper into the polling booth to help them vote, would be shocked that, on suspicion, they could be body searched, like a common criminal.
Section 52(4) of the decree further warns, that if any such material is found on them, “Any person who contravenes this section commits an offence and shall be liable upon conviction to a fine not exceeding $50,000 or to a term of imprisonment not exceeding 10 years or to both”.
Such punishment is surely reserved for extremely serious crimes, not for voters who are merely trying to remember the number of their preferred candidate, and who are voting for the first time in eight years.
Challenge for political parties and voters: how can they help their supporters to mark the right number in the polling booth?
Section 115 (1) of the decree declares that: “Following the announcement of the date of the election, it shall be unlawful for any person, entity or organisation (including any person employed or engaged by any such person, entity or organisation) that receives any funding or assistance from a foreign government, inter-governmental or non-governmental organisation or multilateral agency 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.
So organisations such as CFF, FWRM, WCC, and other NGOs are now banned from such educational activities (because the date of elections has been announced).
Universities are apparently allowed to have “inclusive public forums or panel discussions”.
But many NGOs also have a very legitimate interest, given their charters and constitutions, in conducting voter education campaigns in support of their legitimate interests. That education is not in the service of foreign interests. It does not work in any way against the national interest.
Why should they be banned from conducting such responsible and constructive work that assists good governance in our country?
After all, the Bainimarama Government had no difficulty in obtaining the assistance of electoral experts from Australia and NZ, even though they were funded by foreign governments.
Correct ban on use
of State resources
for campaigning but…
Section 113 of the decree prohibits the use of State resources for campaigning, stating (1) It shall be unlawful to use State authority, including law and tax enforcement authorities, to pressure or intimidate political opposition.
(2) It shall be unlawful for any public officer to conduct campaign activities.
The contradiction however is that under the 2013 Constitution, Rear Admiral Bainimarama and his other ministers are excluded from the definition of “public officers” and they will be allowed to remain in office until election day.
During this period when some ministers will inevitably be campaigning (despite promises five years ago that no minister would stand for elections), they will also have the freedom to use taxpayers’ resources to assist local communities, including potential voters, who may then be predisposed to vote for these ministers.
Other candidates will clearly therefore be at a disadvantage, despite claims by the Electoral Commission that they will ensure a “level playing field” for all candidates.
Identifying supporters of
One of the principles of good governance at elections is that voters must be allowed to vote in secret, in the polling booth, without revealing who they are voting for.
Section 27 of the decree however states that the nomination of an independent candidate is not valid unless it is accompanied by the signatures of at least “1000 registered voters as supporters” and “the full names, residential addresses, occupation and voter numbers of the supporters”.
This surely creates the potential that “supporters” of individual independent candidates will be publicly identified, with their addresses.
This totally negates the principle of the “secrecy of the ballot box”.
Other political parties are thereby being given information to target known supporters of the Independents.
This is surely totally unfair to Independents, for whom this is yet another reason not to stand as an Independent. I will discuss this in my next article.
* The views expressed in this article are the views of the writer, not of The Fiji Times. They, views, are published to encourage political debate and discussion as Fiji prepares for elections.