2 Sep 2013

Fiji's radical new electoral plan a challenge, says electoral expert

5:21 pm on 2 September 2013

An expert in electoral systems in the region says the new system planned for Fiji is a radical change from the past and will be a challenge for the country.

The Fiji government says it will encourage political parties and discourage neglect of the regions, but others fear too much power concentrated in Suva.

Sally Round reports:

The new constitution has done away with multiple constituencies in favour of one covering the whole country and 50 MPs are to be elected via a multi-member open list system of proportional representation. It's a big swing away from the past when the system tried to make room for the competing interests of Fiji's two main ethnic groups, the i Taukei and those of Indian origin. Fiji's Minister for Elections Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum says the aim is to encourage political parties. And he says the government has listened to submissions from those who felt neglected in Fiji's remoter regions.

"AIYAZ SAYED KHAIYUM: The idea is that if you are a member of parliament you must be equally concerned about somebody in Lau, somebody in Ba, somebody in Drasa, wherever the case may be. The idea is that we have a focus on elected members of parliament, having interests in all parts of Fiji, and also to give and ensure that political parties focus on national policies."

Charan Jeath Singh used to be an MP for Macuata West on Fiji's second biggest island Vanua Levu and is a former mayor of its largest town, Labasa.

He is waiting for more information from the government, but he's intrigued to know how the system will work given Fiji's geography of scattered islands. Mr Singh says previously locals knew to go to their own MP for help but under the new system it could be a case of scouting around among the fifty MPs for one who could best serve them.

CHARAN JEATH SINGH: The candidates will have to be very popular amongst everybody in Fiji in order to be able to get into parliament, because basically before you could be a popular person in your own island, what you need now is to be very popular in all parts of Fiji.

Charan Jeath Singh says Vanua Levu has specific development needs.

CHARAN JEATH SINGH: We need to have specific representatives of the island for the people of the place so that they can sit down together, discuss what's to be done and what's to be taken to parliament and what could be put there. So now it's like basically everybody everywhere. So who's going to be talking about what?

A constitutional lawyer and international electoral expert, Dr Andrew Ladley, says the new system favours organised political parties, both big and small. He says it is new for the region and will be watched closely.

ANDREW LADLEY: In many other parts of the Pacific the feeling is that political parties have been too weak to sustain a political party based proportional list system and so this is an unusual development in the region and it will be interesting to see whether political representation and party strength is sufficient in Fiji for this to work.

But Dr Ladley says the new system will require a lot of voter education to deal with what will be quite a complicated ballot paper.

ANDREW LADLEY: You just imagine, say, 20 parties contesting and every party has 50 people on their list. You have to have a ballot mechanism that presents all of that.

A legal representative of Fiji's High Chiefs, Niko Nawaikula, says the plan is among a list of manifest breaches of international treaty obligations. One of those obligations, signed up to by Fiji, is to involve indigenous people before making major policy changes.

NIKO NAWAIKULA: You know, indigenous Fijians they have three tribal confederacies. From independence until now that has been recognised within the format of the elections, where the boundaries are made according to the tribal confederacies or part of it. That has been totally removed. In terms of accountability and responsibility, that takes it away totally.

A human rights activist in Fiji, Tura Lewai, says having one constituency will make it easier for Commodore Frank Bainimarama to remain in power. The coup leader and current prime minister is planning to stand for election next year and Tura Lewai says he has already been luring voters with developments around the country.

TURA LEWAI: What this does is it allows people from all over Fiji, that he's bought through the so-called development projects, to vote for him.

The electoral expert Dr Andrew Ladley says there are challenges ahead.

ANDREW LADLEY: The pendulum has swung quite dramatically from an engineered system and careful attempts to try to make sure that all groups are represented and everybody bargains. It's swung dramatically back the other way to say let's see what happens out of politics and it's going to be extremely interesting to see a what the people of Fiji vote for and b how the then elected leaders set about constructing their own attempts to ensure that no community is left out and everybody feels that they have a stake in it without the consequences of constitutional breakdown.

The government is still to release more details of how the new system will work.