Making Votes Count – Electoral Reform – Speech at Attorney Generals Conference

Postdate: 01-12-2007

Making Votes Count – Electoral Reform
Presentation at AG’s Conference
By Akuila Yabaki, CCF


Fiji will be at the crossroads again, when it will have its fourth election in 2009, in a span of ten years, since the first election under the 1997 Constitution was contested in 1999. The 1997 Constitution, through the Alternative Vote, Open and Communal Seats, and the multi-party cabinet concept, had been envisaged to encourage moderation and accommodation, resulting in a more representative and hence multi-ethnic cabinet. This sadly, has not happened. To the contrary, the racial groups have become more polarised and political parties have played the race card to the maximum. The fact that we have had two coups in the past ten years – despite having the 1997 Constitution and multi-party provisions, clearly shows that things have not worked out in the manner of the spirit of the 1997 Constitution.

In this presentation, I will briefly go over problems in the 1999 and 2001 elections. A repeat of many of these problems was also seen in the 2006 elections. The Citizens’ Constitutional Forum has conducted three Elections Watch workshop, one each after the 1999, 2001 and the 2006 elections. Today’s presentation will share findings and recommendations, made at these Election Watch workshops.

The Expectations and Realities of the 1999 Elections

In the 1999 elections, the Reeves Commission’s expectation of political moderation and sharing of issues did not happen in the way it was intended. Leaders of main parties were indeed conscious of the need to work with cross-ethnic partners; for example, the SVT-NFP-UGP coalition designated an agreed first choice candidate in each constituency. But cooperation between the SVT and NFP was exclusive in character rather than inclusive. Co-operation between the parties in the People’s Coalition, and to some extent between these parties and the Christian Democrats (VLV), was essentially an anti SVT/NFP marriage of electoral convenience. Generally speaking, while there was a consensus between the parties on some issues, they remained divided by history.”

Above the line’ voting was introduced to facilitate cross-ethnic electoral agreements. In reality it meant that candidates did not need to interact with other parties or address wider groups of voters for support once the agreements to trade preferences were struck by party leaders. The AV did not guarantee parties fair representation. “eg. the NFP won no seats although it polled one-third of the Indian vote).

In 1999, problems noted with the electoral process included evidence of political pressure placed on some voters (particularly ethnic Fijians).

Despite the introduction of 25 Open Seats, it was suggested that only six seats were really competitive.

The Multi-party system

Although the Reeves Commission did not recommend mandatory multi-party government in its Constitutional review, a decision to introduce it was made by Parliament.

  • It was felt, in fact, that the Constitutional review had not gone far enough in its proposals for multi-party, multi-ethnic government.
  • Another view was that the elections results had not changed the reality of ethnic-based voting. The concept of multi-ethnic, multi-party government remained a politician’s issue not a people’s issue, imposed from above by the Constitution
  • It was noted there is a conflict between the acceptance by Parliament of the Reeves Commission’s rejection of proportional representation for parliamentary elections and Parliament’s decision to base cabinet membership on a certain proportionality of parties’ parliamentary representation.
  • There were unresolved legal questions on whether parties could set conditions for cabinet membership.
  • The new system was more expensive than the old at F$20 per vote instead of F$6 per vote.
  • Polling station and constituency boundary arrangements needed re-examination. The old system of designating voters to specific polling stations was felt to be more efficient.
  • None of the parties had yet fully adjusted themselves to being multi-racial in appeal, although the FLP did its best to represent wider social issues. This was in spite of the good intentions of the framers of the Constitution and electoral system.
  • The AV system was characterised as a voting system capable of producing capricious and unrepresentative results. It was noted that the SVT-NFP-UGP coalition won more first preference votes than the FLP but far fewer seats. Consequently, it was doubted that the AV could form a stable basis on which to build a multi-party cabinet system.
  • It was suggested that the election of the House of Representatives should be put on a proportional basis to underpin the proportional allocation of cabinet posts.
  • The need for voter education under whatever system was regarded as necessary.
  • There was a consensus that the political situation had changed for the better during the period of the constitutional revision. This was credited to the democratic way in which the Constitution was revised, and was reflected by the respect shown to it by all parties at that time
  • Overall, the 1999 election showed the need for some revision of the new voting arrangements.
  • The party elites failed to engage with the wider electorate (or in some cases their own supporters). This was attributed in part to the introduction of ‘above the line’ voting.

Generally, there was some feelings of optimism that the spirit of the 1997 Constitution and particularly the multi-party concept was working. However, a year later, a civilian coup was staged on May 19 2000, by George Speight and his supporters claiming that Indigenous Fijians land and resources were under threat by an Indo-Fijian dominated government. The insurgency was brought under control by the military, however, the deposed Indo-Fijian Prime Minister and his cabinet were not restored to power. Instead, the country went to elections in August-September 2001.

The 2001 Elections

The 2001 Elections Watch by CCF revealed feelings of unfairness, injustice and hurt and manipulation, particularly among those that lost. For the first time, there was widespread claims that vote-rigging had occurred, although these claims were not given credibility by any of the International Election Observer Missions. The coup had dampened the spirits of many and could be the most probable cause of voter apathy resulting in lower turnouts.

The then Supervisor of Elections, Walter Rigamoto revealed that the voter turnout at the polls was only 78.93 percent compared to 90.18 percent in 1999. This Rigamoto said, was a significant drop and could be attributed to a number of possible factors, such as:

i) apathy

ii) the potential long voter processing times

iii) discontent with the voting system; and

iv) Non prosecution of those who did not vote in 1999

Rigamoto acknowledged that some suggestions had been made that voter intimidation may have also contributed to the low turnout, although there was no real evidence to support this.

Revelations made at the 2001 elections are that in 1987, 48 per cent of the voter population did not vote and 41 per cent did not vote in 1994. Some of the reasons was that: people did not want to vote, they were not interested and some were scared, even in 1994.

More people voted in 1999 than in the 2001 general elections. ….But in 1999 it (invalid votes) was about 7 percent and in 2001 there were about 11 percent invalid votes.”

The feelings of women’s organisations was that many women were feeling apathetic. They did not attribute much importance as to why they should vote? They said some of their choices get overturned in a coup so why should they participate? There was also feelings of fear. Women were scared about what would happen in new elections. And also there was the matter of the very short time for the election process. The Fiji Women’s Rights Movement in 2001 adopted a strategy to help people understand democracy, of how free and fair elections are an important part of democracy.

The feelings of some candidates in 2001, was that the elections had happened too soon  that generally, people were not ready for the elections. Walter Rigamoto had also raised the issue that they had been given only a few months to prepare for the elections.

Concern was raised in the 2001 Elections Watch workshop, that the ordinary citizens want to live in a peaceful country, side by side, helping one another and caring for one another. However it appeared that at the top level of the hierarchy, they were doing their level best to stop that happening.

Concerns were also raised that the country had gone too soon to elections, after the traumatic experience of the 2000 coup. A participant, Ratu Meli Vesikula questioned, “So how on earth can we prepare our people for a general election after a crisis as big as the coup? As far as I can see, there was no meaningful getting together for dialogue or coming closer together of leaders at the very top and at the higher levels of our country from May 2000 last year to the general election this year. … I can still see an impasse. So is a crisis time a good time to turn to the people in an election?” ….

These factors may well have contributed to the higher number of invalid votes. There were forty thousand invalid votes, which amounts to 12 per cent of the population. 90,000 of the voters did not turn up to vote. Thus people were not ready for the election. They were confused by such factors, their sense of justice was insulted. Think back: lack of faith in their leaders, having just taken part in the general elections they had hoped for something better, perhaps that leaders could get together and revive the parliament that they had elected, that did not happen.

Other factors that impinged on the voting environment included security forces and the role of the security forces in this, the question of the intimidation of voters, and threats about possible bloodshed if certain political parties were to win.

The mere fact that international observer teams from around the world came to Fiji for the first time was interpreted as a hint of how serious the situation was. The hint was that elections in Fiji did not appear to be working.

After taking into account the people who did not turn up to vote and people whose votes were invalid, the number of effective votes that decided on the government of the country was calculated as being 65.9 per cent.

SVT candidate Filipe Bole, calculation is also close to this figure, where he estimates that actually, 30 per cent of voters did not vote. Further factors that contributed to lower voter turn-out was the effects of intimidation, such as the violence that took place in Dawasamu and Muaniweni areas and missing names in electoral registers.

The 2001 elections also saw political parties exploit to the full, the different customs and traditions of the races and cultures in Fiji. The winners were the political parties that most successfully exploited and manipulated these traditional, ethnic, cultural and religious influences. In the main, these influences actually compartmentalised the voters and made the elections less free to express their will.

It was revealed that the SDL party had suppressed voters’ will by presentation of a tabua to the chiefs from the 14 provinces, to seek their support and that of their people. This was described as exploitation and manipulation of Fijian tradition to the full. Another manipulation was revealed as the use of Provincial councils to select candidates for political parties or even to select independents.

The third example of manipulation was the use of religion to promote political parties. It was revealed that Methodist ministers and stewards were directed in writing by the Methodist church president to campaign for and promote the SDL party. The President of the Methodist church was rewarded for this action by being given a seat in the Senate in 2001. The use of race card by political parties, and promotion of politics of fear. Another is the power of chiefly authorities and commands…..

Caretaker ministers were accused of not resigning in time and that they misused government resources to promote their party. One of the major concerns associated with such abuse was the so-called agriculture scam where liberal handouts comprising farming tools, implements etc, amounting to over $16 million were handed out just prior to elections by interim government ministers who had become part of the SDL party.

An interesting observation was made at the 2001 Elections Watch workshop that the issue of justice perceived differently by Fijians and Indians. For Fijians, the issue of justice was said to be concerned with domination. Whereas the issue of justice for Indo-Fijians was supposed to be linked to self-respect. This was seen as further fueling polarisation on both sides. Indo-Fijians saw justice as re-assertion of their electoral rights, SDL and others continued to use the reason “why we did May 19 was we wanted to take control”.

Comparing elections

Both the 1999 and the 2001 elections were historic in their own ways. The 1999 election was the first under Fiji’s new constitution. The 2001 election was the first following one of the most traumatic periods of in recent history. Both then were profound transition points: the 1999 one from a long period of racial exclusion and dominance to a more open and democratic order; and the 2001 election taking the country from a period of governance by an unelected administration to that of an elected one.

In hindsight, perhaps since independence in 1970, we have taken too many things for granted about the electoral system and its ability to contribute to the goals of multiculturalism, national unity and based on that, sustainable development, perhaps. The 1977, 1982 and 1987 elections had come down to communal competitions between the two major communal blocks and the general elections had come down to a competition for the five or six marginal cross-voting seats at the time. Some type of façade of electoral democracy seemed to be taking place but in reality a communal competition was taking place.

Between 1968 and 1971, our leaders negotiated the framework within which elections were to be carried out in independent Fiji. …We preached the virtues of multiculturalism in Fiji based on appearances of cross-ethnic political exchanges via the cross-voting seats. We could speculate that, had we taken a step back to reflect after two or three elections and accepted that the cross-voting seats were largely behaving like their communal counterparts, we might have redrawn the electoral architecture earlier.

Elections need to be evaluated against a set of standards, as well as for their aspirations. For a multiracial, multiethnic country like Fiji, where the issue of race can be made to assume an overriding significance, the question of electoral legitimacy is even more pressing. Elections must produce legitimate governments. But more than that, they must be seen to produce legitimate governments.

We have accepted that for as long as the race card is used divisively in our communities, Fiji will need to have other enabling mechanisms to ensure that government is representative of a large cross section of all communities. This might not be possible if we rely upon elections alone. Thus we have included discussion of the formation and operation of multiparty government in this workshop.

Therefore, even the introduction of the 1997 Constitution and Multi-party system has failed to produce accommodation and moderation in Fiji’s politics. There is generally a feeling that although better than before, women continue to be excluded from decision-making and electoral representation processes.


  1. For voters, it is important for them to understanding the whole process of governance and why and how voting fits in the state. They need to understand why their rights are important. Once people understand their civil and political rights, they can then understand how and why they should demanding for resources and development for their communities. More education on governance, citizenship, human rights and democratic processes are necessary for these results to occur.
  2. If the true spirit of democracy is to be respected, then political parties manifestos and policies should be geared for the development of the whole nation. In Fiji’s case, the fact that political parties only cater for particular ethnic groups means that when they come into power, they do not have a national focus and thus propagate racial divisiveness and prejudice.
  3. A possible way to deal with this would be if racial elements were removed from the electoral system. All parties would then be obliged to cater for the needs, aspirations and well-beings of all members of the country. Where a party is promoting policies that can be racially discriminating of other ethnic groups, they should be disqualified from contesting the elections. This would be in line with CERD obligations of Fiji.
  4. The election system has been unkind to those reformed politicians who have publicly acknowledged wrongs. Those supporting ethnic nationalist policies, upon embracing multiracialism have been treated unkindly at the polls by their people. Examples are   Sitiveni Rabuka, Ratu Meli Vesikula, Ratu Epeli Ganilau. Fijian society is not providing space for Fijians to hold different views, as should be the case in a democracy. There needs to be more education on the true spirit of democracy, which caters for everyone’s rights, needs, and identities to be respected.
  5. Electoral reform – after the Elections Watch workshop in 2006, CCF made a recommendation that Fiji should adopt an electoral system that is geared towards Proportional representation. This could be the only way forward for Fiji, if it wants to break out of a cycle of non-representation for certain ethnic groups in cabinet, which has been a problem since independence. The elected leaders of Fiji have shown a general unwillingness to give appropriate number of seats in cabinet, to reflect the different ethnic communities here. Therefore, the only way this problem may be able to be rectified is if there is a proportional representation system, especially in light of the diminishing number of population of other ethnic groups, since the 1987, 2000 and 2006 coups.
  6. Fiji needs to find a middle way to resolve the problems that has resulted in the four coups. Clearly, a review of the constitution or a review of the electoral process has not made this possible. In the aftermath of the 2000 and now the 2006 coup, dialogue has not been held to find a middle ground to take the country forward. CCF believes that the Charter process will enable us to find this middle ground. South Africa was able to avoid bloodshed and is moving towards better times after adopting the middle way through the Truth and Reconciliation. Northern Ireland took the middle way by dialogue between the two extremes sides, the protestants and catholics who had formed two opposing blocks in the population. A Community Relations Commission was formed by civil society representatives who presented a model on what Northern Ireland could look like. They explored their differences from a strength-based position and realised that segregation was paralysing every single sector of the country. The Commission created the first integrated school and started inter-community projects. Closer to home, Bougainville, after losses of thousands of lives, has now a peace settlement …. Fiji needs to go the middle way. This middle way can be derived through the Charter process.



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