A lot of drums have been beaten in recent days at the Pacific Forum Leaders Summit in the Cooks Islands but none more hollow than that of the unholy alliance of Fiji’s four main political parties. The SDL – the governing party deposed by Frank Bainimarama in 2006 – joined forces with the Fiji Labour Party, the National Federation Party and the United Peoples Party to present a joint submission to the Forum leaders. No-one is saying they were not entitled to do so. But it is a self serving document that stretches the truth in several key areas and is aimed squarely at damaging Fiji in the eyes of its Pacific neighbours. The submission is rooted in the abject fear of all four political groupings that their days are numbered because the racially-based voting system on which their power has always depended is being swept away.
The eleven-page submission asserts that “there is a misconception in some quarters that Fiji is truly on the road back to democracy and constitutional rule.” Set against the facts, this is a deliberate attempt to deceive. As of this weekend, nigh on half a million Fijians have registered to vote in the scheduled election in 2014. At the same time, members of the Constitutional Commission are touring the country hearing submissions on a new constitution, which will be implemented next year. That constitution will be more democratic than anything Fiji has ever seen before. Why? Because it will provide a level electoral playing field for the first time in the country’s history – not a system weighted in favour of the indigenous majority but one based on equal votes of equal value. In other words a real democracy, not the sham on which these four parties once thrived. How can there be any misconception about this?
The truth is that the standard of democracy in Fiji envisaged by the Bainimarama Government passes a much higher test than that of its opponents. It has laid out several fundamental principles that ought to apply in any real democracy yet is facing strong resistance to what ought to be the bleeding obvious. Let’s just go through these principles one by one and then judged for yourself whether they constitute any grounds for “misconception” about who really stands for genuine democracy in Fiji.
(i) a common and equal citizenry. The Bainimarama Government wants a common identity for everyone, for all citizens to be known as Fijians. The SDL and the UPP want only i’Taukei to be called Fijians and the rest of us to be labeled Fiji Islanders. The SDL also wants the i’Taukei language to be declared the country’s official language.
(ii) a secular state. The SDL – in several submissions to the Constitutional Commission – has called for Fiji to be declared a Christian state in spite of the fact that 40 per cent of Fijians are non-Christian. In a multi-faith country, they want one faith to be given special status.
(iii) the removal of systemic corruption. The Bainimarama Government set up FICAC, the Fiji Independent Commission Against Corruption. It has directly led to the conviction and jailing – on corruption charges – of the SDL leader and former prime minister, Laisenia Qarase. And there are proceedings pending against the Labour Party leader, Mahendra Chaudhry.
(iv) An independent judiciary.
(v) elimination of discrimination. The Bainimarama Government has ended the preferential treatment of indigenous Fijians that was the hallmark of the SDL government it deposed. This included two major pieces of legislation that made non-indigenous people second class citizens in Fiji – the Qoliqoli Bill and changes to land title to advantage the i’Taukei.
(vi) good and transparent governance. The standard of service delivery to isolated areas of the country has been dramatically improved after years of neglect by successive governments, including the SDL and Labour.
(vii) social justice;
(viii) one person, one vote, one value. In stark contrast to most of its opponents, the Bainimarama Government stands for the most fundamental democratic principle of all – that each person in Fiji should have the same voting power as their neighbour.
(ix) the elimination of ethnic voting. Another fundamental principle opposed by the Government’s opponents, who are arguing for some seats to be reserved for the various races. This continues to define Fiji along racial lines when genuine unity depends on a multiracial future. In their Forum submission, all four parties advocate the retention of racial voting, declaring: “This is a crucial issue in ensuring racial harmony and must be put to open discussion so that a fully representative system can which respects the rights of minority communities and assures them due representation in Parliament and Cabinet.”
(x) proportional representation.
(xi) voting age of 18 years. Why has it taken the Bainimarama Government to finally empower Fiji’s young people? The 18 to 21 year old segment of the population is one of the biggest yet has been denied a voice until now.
None of the above can possibly be regarded as undemocratic set against international norms yet this is the lie perpetuated by the SDL, the FLP, the NFP and the UPP. The truth is that they live in terror of these principles being implemented because it spells the end of the cosy consensus on which they’ve always depended – Fiji as a collection of tribes rather than one nation. The country is tired of the division these parties represent and wants a fresh start – first and foremost a level playing field for everyone. No-one is saying these parties should be excluded. They are entitled to compete like everyone else if they meet the test that eventually emerges from the constitutional discussions. But the days of them expecting special consideration are over.
These people evidently believe they are not only privileged but that they are above the law. How else to explain the section of their submission to the Pacific Forum that protests against the jailing of the SDL leader, Laisenia Qarase, and the pending trial of Labour’s Mahendra Chaudhry? A court has found Qarase guilty of nine counts of corruption – six of abuse of office – in a unanimous verdict. Do they seriously believe this entitles him to contest the 2014 election? Do they similarly think that the serious charges against Chaudhry should just be quietly dropped because he wants to contest the polls? Well yes they do. Because their submission casts these criminal proceedings as a “restriction” placed on those who want to seek election and was signed by all four leaders – Solomone Naivalu -the president of the SDL -Mahendra Chaudhry, Raman Pratap Singh -the president of the National Federation Party -and Mick Beddoes, the leader of the United Peoples Party.
In a breathtaking conclusion, they say the following: “The signatory parties to this submission won 98 per cent of the votes cast in the last general elections held in 2006 and therefore hold an overwhelming mandate to speak on behalf of the people of Fiji.” No gentlemen, you speak for yourselves and those around you. The rest of the country wants to turn its back on the divisions of the past. It wants change.