Opinion – By Professor Wadan Narsey
There can be little doubt that Voreqe Bainimarama, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum and a cabal of secret advisers on decrees, electoral systems, budgets, elections manifesto and spin doctors have waged a brilliant and highly successful campaign – for at least three years – prior to winning this 2014 General Election.
The chairman of the subservient Electoral Commission (Chen Bunn Young), as expected, pronounced the September 2014 Elections as “free and fair”.
But the knowledgeable Multinational Observer Group (MOG), in Fiji to largely observe the “casting and counting of votes”, stated only that the election results “broadly represented the will of the people” (barring any proof of substantial irregularities alleged by some political parties).
The good governance organisations know too well that elections are far more than just the “casting and counting” of votes, especially in a Fiji where draconian military decrees and total media control have restricted and shaped public opinion over the last eight years.
Books will now be written about this second Fiji case study (the first being Rabuka) on how a military commander, treasonously deposed a lawfully elected government, and managed to become legitimised as an elected Prime Minister, solemnly swearing oaths of allegiance he had not kept before in 2006 and 2009.
There are two extreme interpretations of this metamorphosis, with the truth perhaps somewhere in between.
At one extreme is Graham Davis’ euphoric and populist interpretation of the Bainimarama journey as a glorious revolution and an unparalleled triumph of leadership creating a modern Fiji of equal citizenry published on his blog Grubsheet. (Graham Davis previously declared his interest that he is employed by US lobbying company Qorvis which has been hired by the Bainimarama government to improve its public image).
At the other extreme is the dark underbelly of the Bainimarama “revolution” that civil society organisations and opposition parties have struggled against for the last eight years.
With society failing to draw any kind of a line at a long series of seemingly small restrictions on their basic freedoms, Bainimarama’s step by step systemic imposition of military decrees and media policies, unfettered and unopposed, eventually accumulated into the all-powerful propaganda machine that handed him a landslide electoral victory, easily hailed as “the people have spoken”.
These astute steps include Bainimarama’s rejection a full two years ago, of the Draft Constitution formulated by Bainimarama’s own Yash Ghai Commission, the unilateral imposition of their own constitution giving themselves immunity, their total control and censorship of the media, their control of the Electoral Commission, the Supervisor of Elections, MIDA, their restrictions on NGOs for voter education and elections monitoring, their last minute vote-buying manifesto release, the shady role of the business houses, all accompanied by the thunderous silence of the good people of Fiji.
Without all these systemic biases, the Fiji First Party margin of victory might be significantly reduced, or even become negative.
Why reject the Ghai Draft?
Bainimarama’s election strategy finally clarified some important reasons for his rejection of the Ghai Draft Constitution despite it granting full immunity to all the coup collaborators.
First, the Ghai Draft electoral system had four constituencies (the divisions), apparently a trivial difference, but it would have limited Bainimarama to appear on the ballot paper for only one constituency and hence strictly limited his personal vote appeal. All other FFP candidates on the other three constituencies would have had to struggle for votes against other competitors, instead of riding on Bainimarama’s coat-tails.
Second, the Bainimarama government would have had to resign six months before the election. This would have prevented Bainimarama and his ministers from using taxpayers funds and donor funded projects, right up to polling day, in blatant and very successful vote buying.
Third, Bainimarama would not have had the complete control over the media through their restrictive media decrees (including the Media Industry Development Authority – MIDA) to obtain maximum political mileage for themselves, while criticising and ruthlessly suppressing opposition parties.
Fourth, to obtain immunity, Bainimarama and his coup collaborators would have had to express remorse for specific actions for which they wanted immunity, with clearly negative consequence for their image with voters.
Last, under the Ghai Draft, and perhaps less important, the Bainimarama government would not have had the total control over the Electoral Commission, the Elections Office, and MIDA, as they did.
The electoral system
Bainimarama’s electoral system and constitution were not discussed or approved by the other political parties, and the electoral system in hindsight seems designed specifically to suit Bainimarama’s planned elections strategy.
Despite political parties’ recommendations for local constituencies (so that local communities could elect their “own” Member of Parliament to represent their local interests), Bainimarama insisted on one national constituency, with each voter voting for just one candidate (as was the FFP strategy).
While the electoral system has the advantage of proportionality (which also benefited NFP in Parliament for the first time), it imposed the 5 percent threshold rule which eliminated small parties and Independents, unduly harsh, given that each parliamentarian roughly represents 2 percent of the votes. Their lost equivalent of 4 seats went to the largest parties in proportion (if you took away 3 seats from FFP they would be left with 29).
Candidates were rejected with large numbers of votes, while many with fewer votes, but belonging to larger parties, have been elected making a mockery of the years of relentless propaganda “1 person = 1 vote = 1 value”. But that applied to most candidates, not just to FFP
The manipulated ballot paper and candidates list
The pliant Elections Office and Electoral Commission then enforced the outrageous Electoral Decree requirement that the ballot paper only have numbers (all 248 of them), with no names, no photos and no party symbols which could have helped illiterate voters identify the candidate of their choice.
The Electoral Commission and Elections Office refused to accede to requests that the ballot paper could still group the candidate numbers together under their party symbol (with their names and photos) so that even if voters ticked an adjacent number by mistake, the vote would still go to their chosen party.
The Electoral Decree unreasonably banned the voters from taking any material (such as voting cards) into the polling booth, which could have assisted illiterate voters to tick the number they wanted.
The pliant Electoral Commission went along with the Candidates List in which candidates were all deliberately mixed up randomly, with no party grouping or party symbols.
This clearly worked against the interests of opposition parties who took seriously the task of supporting all their candidates and numbers, not just the party leader.
The FFP strategy of asking voters to vote for just the one number representing Bainimarama, resulted in him receiving a massive number of votes, which dragged into Parliament a large number of his colleagues, some with minimal votes. [This was the “democratic” electoral system that electoral missionary and foreigner David Arms, also a member of the Electoral Commission, fought tooth and nail to impose on Fiji’s political parties and voters].
The proud boasts of the Elections Office about the record low percentage of invalid votes are hollow, given that with the existing ballot paper, no one can find out if there were “invalid votes” caused by voters wrongly ticking a number which was not of their intended candidate.
A “perverse proof” is that a relatively unknown candidate, Ilaijia Tavia, received the highest votes of all the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) candidates, because many voters probably confused his number (297) with that of Bainimarama (279).
Bainimarama’s Electoral Decree also banned “exit polls”, which are a regular part of democratic elections, useful the world over as a check against the rigging of the counting process.
It is abundantly clear now that the entire electoral system and electoral decree was cunningly designed to suit the Bainimarama campaign for voters to remember only one number (279) while ignoring all other candidates.
The Elections Office and the media have dutifully played along with the game by comparing Bainimarama’s personal vote with that of Ro Temumu Kepa and Professor Biman Prasad, totally ignoring that opposition parties’ elections strategies gave broad exposure to all the candidates, and not just the party leader as did the FFP.
The pliant election authorities
By decree, the Bainimarama government ensured that the ultimate authority over the elections, the Minister of Elections was their own Attorney-General (Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum) also unashamedly the secretary-general of Fiji First Party.
They appointed their own Supervisor of Elections, as well as their own choice of Electoral Commission members, and the Media Industry Development Authority chairman, most being open or closet Bainimarama sympathisers.
Academics will no doubt try to clarify exactly how much effort the Supervisor of Elections, the Electoral Commission and the MIDA chairman put in, to try and make the elections genuinely “free and fair”, despite the restrictive Electoral Decree and other media laws.
What the public did see was that while the Elections Office spent millions encouraging the voter registration of Fiji citizens living overseas to have a say in electing some candidate for the Fiji Parliament, a last-minute Bainimarama Decree unfairly disqualified some opposition party candidates because they had been overseas for more than 18 months out of the last two years, some for legitimate reasons such as higher education. Did the Electoral Commission protest?
Then when the Electoral Commission issued a ruling that a FLP candidate was eligible to stand for elections (because he did not have a conviction as previously claimed) and a FFP candidate was ineligible to stand because he was facing a criminal charge of causing death by dangerous driving, the Supervisor of Elections refused to abide by the ruling.
The technical justification was that the ruling had been received by the Elections Office a few hours after the due time, duly backed up by the courts who adjudicated the case by defining what was mean strictly by “three days”, not what “natural justice” and common sense required. Did the Electoral Commission protest?
Early in the campaign, scholarship authorities under the control of the Bainimarama regime terminated the scholarship of one of the party workers of young Independent candidate Roshika Deo, on totally ridiculous grounds.
While the scholarship was eventually reinstated after a public outcry and much buck-passing between the USP management and scholarship authorities, the message was given to young votersn- don’t support the opponents of the Bainimarama regime, if you want your scholarships to continue. Did the Electoral Commission protest?
The restricted education of voters
Months before polling day, the Bainimarama Regime warned NGOs that under Section 115 (1) of the Electoral Decree “it shall be unlawful for any 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.”
Totally against the spirit of free and fair elections, organisations like Citizen’s Constitution Forum (CCF), Fiji Women’s Rights Movement (FWRM), Women’s Crisis Centre (WCC), and other NGOs were banned from all such educational activities, which is the norm in democratic societies, and indeed has been the practice in all previous elections. Did the Electoral Commission protest?
While universities were apparently allowed to have such education campaigns and organise debates, panel discussions, none did so, a reflection of the often demonstrated pro-Bainimarama biases of their managements and their previously demonstrated willingness to suppress academic freedom.
The restricted monitoring
Outrageously, the Attorney-General and secretary-general of the Fiji First Party also decided that while international observers and party scrutineers would be allowed to monitor the activities at the polling stations, he would not allow 300 independent local observers from the Civil Society-Domestic Elections Observation Group (CSO-DEOG)?
The CSO-DEOG plaintively and futilely argued that “local community observers are often able to understand the nuances that international observers cannot, and their absence will leave a hole in the process.”
Common sense would also suggest that while international observers would be gone after the elections, and while party scrutinisers can always be accused of bias should they observe any irregularities, the local NGOs/CSOs could be relied upon firstly, to be truly independent and secondly, to maintain institutional memory and ongoing sustainability in good governance practices in elections. Did the Electoral Commission protest?
The flood of vote-buying
The Bainimarama government used its ministerial positions to keep distributing taxpayer and donor-funded benefits right up to polling day, justifiably construed as “vote-buying”, given the timing of these benefits.
This was contrary to the recommendation of the Ghai Draft Constitution which had required that ministers must resign six months before polling so that the other parties were given a fair deal.
Then Fiji First Party deliberately issued its Manifesto of vote-buying goodies a mere 10 days before the actual polling day. It promised families earning below $20,000 per year, free electricity, water, medicines, milk for all Class 1 students throughout the length and breadth of Fiji (more profits for C J Patel who owns Rewa Dairy), first home grants, a $10 million grant for indigenous Fijian landowners, a wide range of subsidies in agriculture, and the reinstatement of Dr Mahendra Reddy’s initial minimum wage of $2.32 per hour (which Bainimarama and Usamate had last year unilaterally reduced to $2 per hour after pressure from employers).
Opposition parties and candidates were given no time to challenge the FFP on the practical viability of these promises (eg how to identify “poor” families throughout Fiji), least of all on how all these vote-buying promises would be financed. In contrast, for months, FFP and their sympathetic journalists had freely attacked the Opposition parties on their policies.
No one in the media asked why the FFP Manifesto was virtually 100 percent “freebies” and “handouts” when Bainimarama in 2008 had promised that his government would not pander to Fijians’ “hand-out” mentality.
No one in the media or the MIDA chairman questioned Bainimarama’s blatant use of the racial fear tactic when he advised Indo-Fijian voters, that if they voted for him there would be no more coups.
Did the Electoral Commission or the MIDA chairman protest at any of these unfair electioneering tactics?
The media biases
It will not be difficult for even journalism students to establish that the content of the Fiji Sun and the broadcasts by Fiji Broadcasting Corporation (both radio and television) have been sheer propaganda on behalf of the Bainimarama government.
Nor to prove that the media journalists who were the hosts of so-called “debates” between parties, were blatantly biased in favor of FFP candidates and antagonistic towards Opposition candidates and parties.
Nor that most debate hosts played along with the FFP strategy of focusing on non-issue of calling all citizens “Fijians” while giving opposition candidates little room to raise their own arguably weightier concerns.
None of the journalists persevered in asking Bainimarama or Khaiyum why they refused to release Auditor-General reports since 2006 or the minister’s salaries before 2014; why they refused to release reports on the FNPF losses at Natadola and Momi; why their Manifesto promised all the “goodies” just 10 days before polling; why they had not kept their promise in 2007 that no military personnel would ever benefit from his coup, or that none of his ministers including himself, would ever stand for elections; nor the alleged equality of citizens when his government prosecuted and jailed political opponents, while giving himself and his collaborators total immunity from 2000 to 2014 for crimes still unstipulated.
An extraordinary development in the days prior to polling day was the refusal of FBC to take paid advertisements from one of the Opposition parties, while freely giving exposure to FFP and its candidates.
MIDA and the media
The public also waited in vain for the Media Industry Development Authority chairman (Ashwin Raj) to exercise an independent regulatory impact on the media in the run-up to the election.
The Fiji Times was perpetually on notice having already been fined a massive $400,000 and its editor (Fred Wesley) given a suspended six month sentence for what some might call a trivial offence, while the owner remained overseas with a bench warrant out on another charge.
Three months before the elections, the MIDA chairman refused to respond to very specific questions addressing the very core of a free and fair media industry relating to:
- millions of tax-payers advertisement funds being channelled by the Bainimarama government only to Fiji Sun with The Fiji Times being denied;
- outright massive subsidies given to FBC (whose CEO was the brother of the Attorney-General) via government budget and government guarantees of loans from FDB;
- the intimidating renewal of the licence for Fiji TV on a six-monthly basis;
- the sacking of a senior Fiji TV journalist (Anish Chand) who wanted more critical programmes covering the elections, because of complaints from the Bainimarama government.
A month before the election, the MIDA chairman refused to respond when complaints were made about the biased role of the media and some media journalists in the coverage of the elections and the debates between parties and candidates.
The MIDA chairman refused to respond when it was pointed out that Veena Bhatnagar, who had been a clearly pro-Bainimarama media host of the FBC’s Aina programmed during a debate between Professor Biman Prasad (leader of NFP) and Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum (secretary of FFP), a mere week later appeared as a candidate for FFP. So also did the MIDA CEO (Matai Akauola).
None of these were apparently of concern to the MIDA chairman, who now applauds the media for their conduct during the elections, a supine media being clearly to his liking.
The business community
When the facts eventually come out on the factors that influenced the outcome of the 2014 Elections, the most important but shadiest one will be the massive campaign funds donated to the FFP by Fiji’s business houses, most unlikely to be ever revealed to the public as required by the laws.
This massive corporate support of FFP was to be expected given that the Bainimarama government in the 2012 Budget had reduced corporate tax from 28 percent to 20 percent and the highest marginal income tax from 30 percent to 20 percent, and immediately put more than $150 million annually into the pockets of the wealthy in Fiji.
Against this huge benefit (and other special ones unknown), collectively giving $10 to $20 million to the FFP campaign would have been an easy to justify “cost of doing business” in Fiji, unlikely to ever enter into any WB or ADB Index on “ease of doing business” in Fiji.
Deserving special mention is the recipient of several valuable financial benefits from the Bainimarama government, C J Patel, whose ownership and control of the Fiji Sun has enabled them to wage a propaganda campaign whose success can only be guessed at, given the final outcome.
But this is nothing new. Since 1970, the business community (of all ethnic groups) have funded all powerful politicians and those controlling government, promptly switching the support ever so easily from Mara to Chaudhry to Rabuka to Qarase and now to Bainimarama.
But the 2014 Elections is unusual in that Bainimarama, through his vote buying, has simultaneously been able to win a large proportion of the votes of the poor, while enjoying the financial support of the rich.
It should be interesting for economics students to follow how long this honeymoon threesome between Bainimarama’s Minister of Finance, the rich and the poor, will last, especially when revenues must be eventually increased to meet both the promised “goodies” and the vastly increased Public Debt.
Another victory for treason, lies, deceit, money and the “culture of silence”.
The ordinary public, understandably weary of eight years of social conflict and uncertainty, just want “to move on”, lulled by the cliché “the people have spoken”.
The international community, donor partners, regional and international organisations, relations with Fiji now normalised, will also be relieved to move on, understandably, as it is not for them to solve Fiji fundamental and systemic political problems.
But it must be terribly depressing for the many candidates and parties who fought the election on decent principles of good governance, truth and justice, as it must be for hard-working civil society organisations, only to find that treason, lies, deceit and astute propaganda have prevailed.
But they must not hold themselves responsible.
Despite this age of limitless and virtually free national and global communications through the Internet and social media such as Facebook, Twitter and the blogs, ultimately, morally right decisions must still be made by human beings at the ends of the communication networks, and such decisions depend profoundly on our educated social leaders.
Unfortunately, for eight years now, Fiji’s social leaders have been afflicted by the “culture of silence” which some attribute not just to material self-interest, but also a lack of moral courage and integrity.
And the truth?
Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi gives a nuanced cultural rationalisation that the silence of indigenous Fijians should not be interpreted to mean consent, and this may be comforting to some. But that remains at odds with the cacophony of frequently violent, sometimes well-reasoned dissent engaged in by bloggers on the internet, where the virtually 100 percent anonymity reduces the social responsibility and impact of the contributors virtually to zero. Are they going to get the Fiji they deserve?
The truth may be somewhere in between these two extreme views, but Fiji is ultimately left to ponder Edmund Burke’s observation, that all that is needed for evil to prosper is for good men and women to remain silent.
And silent indeed have been our legions of senior accountants, lawyers, university academics, principals, teachers, professionals, bankers, and businessmen, for eight long years, giving no guidance whatsoever to the hundreds of thousands of first time voters in the 2014 elections.
Some in SODELPA will rue that what the ethno-nationalists sowed in 1987 and 2000, they have reaped in 2014. The military genie they let out of the bottle then, has refused to go back into the bottle and they will remain a debilitating drain on taxpayers’ funds for the foreseeable future, to ensure their continued loyalty.
Professor Wadan Narsey is a Fiji economist and analyst and adjunct professor at James Cook University. He publishes his own columns and blogs.