Plenty of challenges ahead for democracy in Fiji
This year's election in Fiji will be challenging, but the real test is yet to come, according to a group of academics.
This year's election in Fiji will be challenging, but the real test may be a further four years away.
That is one assessment raised during a conference involving academics and NGO representatives who gathered in Canberra recently.
The panel, part of the State of the Pacific conference at the Australian National University, examined the challenges and opportunities presented by Fiji's first election in eight years.
Jamie Tahana reports.
September's election will be the first since Laisenia Qarase's government was overthrown by the military regime of Frank Bainimarama in the coup of 2006. It's this same regime that wrote the rule book for this year's election, and Jon Fraenkel from Wellington's Victoria University says it will be very different to any previous election in Fiji.
JON FRAENKEL: There are no longer communal seats where people vote according to their different ethnic communities, the voting age has been changed from 21 to 18, and by treating the country as a single national constituency the former imbalance to the rural vote has been ended and the urban vote and the youth votes are going to be much more significant.
Mr Fraenkel says Fiji has thrown out its former electoral system in favour of proportional representation, which he says has been desired for some time. However, he says the structure that's been adopted does pose challenges.
JON FRAENKEL: The problem with it is that not only does it have an opaque, complex ballot paper that looks like a bingo card, but also voters not only have to struggle to get the right number for the right candidate but also they may not be fully aware that simple circling a number also is an endorsement for a party. In that sense it's a latent party list system where the backing for a party is somewhat concealed.
Romitesh Kant, an academic from the University of the South Pacific, says the reduced voting age will create a sizeable chunk of voters who have never voted before, which will make the youth vote very attractive for parties. He says the biggest problem for these voters will be mobilising them to become active participants in the democratic process.
ROMITESH KANT: I think for the past eight years or so the environment hasn't actually been conducive enough to allow them to be critical, [to] ask questions, and then suddenly three months before elections they are thrust into this and expected to just come up and ask questions and be critical.
The Fiji Women's Rights Movement's Virisila Buadromo says the same mobilisation issues are also affecting women. She says the fact the same people continue to stand for parliament is creating a sense of disillusionment in the community.
VIRISILA BUADROMO: A lot of the questions that are being asked now are 'who is going to represent us in parliament?' And when you look at the lineup of the political parties who have put up women a lot of these women come from the old guard; they come from elite families, they come from political families.
However, all agree the upcoming elections will be critical for Fiji's future and are encouraging people to vote. But Romitesh Kant says the biggest challenges for the fledgling democracy are yet to come.
ROMITESH KANT: I think the real test will come in 2018, when people will actually have tested the system and seen its loopholes and seen how it progresses from there and whether this will lead to a sustainable form of democracy or not. I think in the next couple of years we will still be playing around with how to deal with this system that has been thrust upon us.
The election is scheduled for September the 17th, with international observer groups expected to be led by Australia and Indonesia.
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