Power Sharing Through Multi Party Government


Postdate: 22/ 05/ 2003  


Issues and prospects for Fiji Background Paper for Citizens Constitutional Forum (Fiji) Workshop: May 31 – June, 1 2003: Tanoa Hotel, Nadi.


This note throws light on some key issues relating to power sharing and multiparty cabinet government (MPCG) in Fiji for political parties, civil society and international community. It draws on consultations within the Citizens Constitutional Forum, and between the CCF and local and international agencies and resource persons. It is likely that the Supreme Court will uphold the constitutional provisions for the formation of multiparty cabinet government. However, inter-communal and inter-party relations remain strained. This is likely to undermine any transition to multiparty cabinet government. Obviously, the courts can do little to make a multiparty government work. The SDL remains quite apprehensive about the workability of a MPCG in Fiji. Under the difficult circumstances of political parties remaining divided and the limits of any further court interventions, it is necessary for civil society to make measured, well targeted interventions to support the development of MPCG. The suggestions that are advanced relate to two overlapping timeframes. First is that the period leading to and immediately after the Supreme Court case in mid 2003. Second, is the period prior to and immediately after the next general elections. Multiparty government: a power sharing approach to governance As in several other post conflict transformations (Northern Ireland, Bosnia etc), Fiji has adopted the concept of multiparty government as the central mechanism for its governance. The multiparty government provision lies at the heart Fiji’s Constitution. It explains its approach to governance in an ethnically divided society and amplifies the settlement that made that constitution possible. It is not the problem in the constitution – it is the solution that the constitution provides to overcoming governance challenges. It is the mechanism that is deliberately selected in order to overcome the difficulties associated with change in governments and the problem of exclusion and alienation. Change in governments under a two dominant party Westminster system has translated into change in power from one community to another in Fiji’s case. When the government is so strongly associated with one ethnic group, the other ethnic group/s experiences a deep sense of exclusion and anxiety. Under such circumstances, competition for political power becomes a competition between ethnic groups. And when power transfers from one group to another, it amplifies the sense of anxiety and uncertainty. The multiparty cabinet helps to cut through this. But it aspires to achieve other objectives as well. This includes a deliberate effort to draw on the talents of all communities in national governance. By increasing the representation of excluded groups, it also aims to act as a confidence building measure. Multiparty cabinets have significant consequences for policy formation as well. MPCG can help to ensure that large policy swings do not occur as a result of changes in government and that economic and developmental policies are the product of negotiation and compromise. Large policy swings, for an open and vulnerable economy like Fiji can have adverse effects on investment and on its relations with bilateral and multilateral developmental and finance institutions. All these points have been well argued and understood but they need to be revisited now when confidence in this approach and method of governance appears to have been shaken.

The MPCG and power sharing are a counterweight and they complement other fundamental provisions of Fiji’s Constitution.

  • (i) Fiji’s Constitution accepts and accords primacy to indigenous rights and interests as its starting point.
  • (ii) To achieve this, it formulates a system of elections and representation deliberately designed to ensure an indigenous Fijians in lower and upper houses. This allows the parliamentary system to ensure that indigenous Fijian political weight (should that be desired) is capable of being mobilised to address grievances, further the aspirations and safeguard the rights of the indigenous community.
  • (iii) In return for a departure from the principal of equality, it places a constitutional obligation for a multiparty government and thus enabling minority and Indo-Fijian communities to share political power.

The MPCG is underpinned by and not separate from propositions (i) and (ii) and it is expected that they will all work complementarily. Constitutional directives But the Constitution goes further to make its method more explicit. It provides the following significant directives for the operation of a multiparty cabinet:

  • (i) the preamble directs the communities and their leaders to negotiate in good faith. Given that key public policies are product of cabinet decisions, this means that such negotiation must also take place within cabinet.
  • (ii) it also provides that should such negotiations fail, the principle of primacy of indigenous group interests will be accepted as both a guiding and protective principle. This is an important restatement of the key premise of primacy of indigenous rights.
  • (iii) It directs government to redress inequalities in commerce, public services, and land – these being issues that assume an ethnic character because of a communalised political economy. These negotiations between groups and parties require compromise and concession. A consultative, consensus building process for formulating policy interventions in these areas is thus implied by the constitutional directives.
  • (iv) It also preserves and in fact enhances the veto powers of nominated members of the Council of Chiefs on issues related to indigenous group rights and interests as an additional protective device.
  • (v) However, and very significantly the constitution did not provide detailed guidance for the establishment of multiparty cabinet government other than directions for the ratios. It also does not specify matters relating to policy, administration and parliamentary procedures relevant for a multiparty government. Fiji’s present problems are partly at least traceable to this shortcoming. Potential for multiparty cabinet government

The multiparty cabinet government is the mechanism deliberately selected to break the ‘winner takes it all’ cycle that is an inevitable consequence of a Westminster type of electoral competition. It was hoped that a multiparty cabinet government may achieve some or all of the following

  • (i) It may help to reduce communal tensions and thus the potential for open conflict in spite of the fact that Fiji’s political system and behaviour remains predominantly racial in orientation. It may reduce the stakes during electoral competitions and thus diffuse simmering tensions.
  • (ii) It may help ensure that public policy is inclusive rather than exclusive and premised on inter-ethnic understanding rather than suspicion. It can help to build cross ethnic group understanding and support for redressing knotty national problems.
  • (iii) It will ensure that communal “winners”, after winning elections are forced to moderate their policies through the multiparty cabinet. It makes communal problems negotiable.
  • (iv) It is likely to help to create support and interest in a human rights culture and rights based approach to development, rather then an ethnic electoral college based/driven one.
  • (v) In all these ways, a multiparty cabinet will persistently work as a conflict prevention mechanism. But it was clearly understood that a multiparty cabinet government would confront severe challenges. These may relate to Extreme polarisation rendering inter-ethnic dialogue impossible.

Leaders and policies that dramatically clash and are incapable of compromise and accommodation. Procedures for policymaking and administration clash with the overriding and the constant need for consensus. Lack of commitment by parties and individuals to work cohesively or operating in deliberately obstructionist ways. ‘Willing’ vs. ‘unwilling’ coalition governments Fiji’s approach of a mandatory multiparty government is in contrast to the view that multiparty governments should be formed between willing partners and not be constitutionally mandated, as is the view of leading scholars like Fisk and the Reeves Commission. A mandatory multiparty government was premised on the following arguments. Firstly, the main parties were (and still are) unable to accept an electoral system that places less emphasis on race. So long as we have an electoral system that is largely race-based, electoral competitions will continue to emphasise and in fact amplify differences rather than communality of interests between ethnic communities. Electoral behaviour, under such circumstances, will reward “ethnic merchants” and penalise those with more cross-ethnic appeals. Unless Fiji’s electoral system changes fundamentally, ethnically based parties will continue to be rewarded. It is difficult for willing-partners to emerge from a race based electoral competition. Should the voting system be transformed to say have 50 open seats and only 20 reserved seats, electoral competitions are more likely to reward parties with greater cross ethnic appeal. This will obviously favour the emergence of willing coalitions. But electoral systems, however poorly designed, do not in themselves generate ethnic suspicion and inwardly looking political parties. Pre-existing factors feed these. These include continued Fijian exclusion in commercial sectors, insecurity of Indo-Fijians with respect to land, and an ethnically compartmentalised political economy more generally. These will continue to be the basis for electoral mobilisation – making it more difficult for government between ‘willing partners’ to emerge prior to elections.

A mandatory multiparty government serves one other useful democratic purpose. When accountability institutions are weak (as was observed during the NBF and more recently the Agriculture Ministry scams), a broad coalition government between willing partners can become dangerously unaccountable. Under mandatory arrangements, the main parties in cabinet keep each other in check – because although they work through consensus and dialogue in cabinet, they are still competitors with an eye to subsequent elections all the time. This will compensate for the otherwise reduced role of the parliamentary opposition. In reality, however, it is expected that Fiji’s politics will oscillate between willing and ‘unwilling’ multiparty coalition governments. This may be a good thing overall for the democratic process. It is also true that when unwilling partners dominate the scene (as is the case now), we get fixated on the operational difficulties for a multiparty cabinet government. When this does happen, as is the case presently, it forces us to reflect on such difficulties to help make the passage of multiparty governments easier. Overcoming risks There are considerable challenges and risks in operating a multiparty cabinet government. The fact that MPCG is a major shift away from a Westminster form of parliamentary politics appears to be not well understood. The difficulties faced by unwilling partners in a forced marriage, on the other hand is well understood. The consequences of not having a powerful opposition as a check on exercise of state power has also been noted by the Prime Minister among others.

A dilution of check and balance role that a strong parliamentary opposition plays can be overcome. Measures that need further consideration are:

  • (i) Further strengthening accountability institutions like the offices of Ombudsman, Auditor General, and Human Rights Commission. This includes ensuring their financial autonomy, broadening their functions and powers and improving their capacity.
  • (ii) Ensuring a vibrant and autonomous public media with minimal direct government stake and certainly no regulatory pressures.
  • (iii) Ensuring that freedom of information laws are developed and access to public information is opened.
  • (iv) Ensuring that leadership code and other codes of conduct for public officials and parliamentarians is developed, that they are effective and capable of being implemented.
  • (v) Establishment of a vigorously autonomous anti-corruption agency that is adequately resourced and has capacity to undertake investigations into official corruption involving top leaders.
  • (vi) Ensuring that public commissions are vigorously independent, professional and protected from change of government and cabinet composition and have resources to safeguard their independence.
  • (vii) Ensuring that green and white papers are presented on all-important laws and policy options.
  • (viii) Introducing a credible public consultative process as a matter of parliamentary procedure.
  • (ix) Strengthening and improving the role of parliamentary committees so as to ensure that informed debate takes place in these committees and consensus is promoted on relevant issues before they are considered by cabinet.
  • (x) Removing party whips to ensure backbenchers from all parties can act cohesively in opposition to cabinet should they want to.
  • (xi) Promoting capacity building within political parties so that they have secretariats that can provide advice to parliamentarians and backbenchers on range of issues.
  • (xii) Separating party structures so that party leaders are different from cabinet members.
  • (xiii) Improving the role and involvement of civil society in the parliamentary process and establishing clear and mandatory procedures for their involvement in all important bills. This includes making specific provisions, including funding to enable civil society to make informed input into a more committee-based parliamentary process.
  • (xiv) Given that the budget is the key instrument for driving policy, ensure that the budget formulation process is opened up, that it is made genuinely consultative as a matter of procedure.
  • (xv) Providing guidelines for inter-party relations. This may include fire-brigade committee for fire fighting when serious inter-party problems and differences erupt.
  • (xvi) Inter-party guidelines must also cover relations between party caucus and cabinet members (issues of confidentiality, reporting and accountability and loyalty of cabinet members to cabinet and party).
  • (xvii) Inter-party guidelines may also provide guidance for “good practice” on issues such as inter and intra-party criticism. 0ther constraints Many political leaders continue to view Fiji through a “Westminster lens” and regard the multiparty cabinet as unwieldy, likely to lead to a policy gridlock and therefore undesirable. This view needs to be corrected.

Fiji’s constitution makes a deliberate and measured effort to move away from a Westminster system characterised by a strong government and opposition blocs. Secondly, Fiji’s politics has become even more communalised following the 2000 upheavals. A new generation of communal politicians have come onto the scene. Such a leadership feeds off a more communalised electorate. It sees a multiparty cabinet government as a constraint to delivering communal policy products. Thirdly, excluded political groups may become impatient with this mechanism. They aspire to the full trophy of government as Fiji’s comes closer to the next elections. This may lead de facto to a continuation of the “winner takes it all cycle” – making the relevant constitutional provision redundant in practice. Fourthly, a new generation of voters has entered the field. It is more removed from the enormous consensus building and reconciliation work that went on between 1995 and 1997 leading to the 1999 elections. Many among them benefit from racialised public policies. They are anxious about a transition to multiparty cabinet government. A racialised public service is also a constraint in any transition to multiparty government. Finally, Fiji continues to face the threat of public disorder and communal violence orchestrated to ensure that FLP remains outside government.

To overcome these constraints and risks, it is necessary for a proactive and well-targeted set of interventions that help to rekindle cross ethnic group, cross party and broad based support for multiparty cabinet government. But other interventions are also necessary because the ground upon which a multiparty cabinet government will sit will remain volatile. This environment needs to be transformed to make the operation of multiparty cabinet government more sustainable. The broader context Discussion about MPCG cannot be separated from the broader political context. The electoral realities of SDL not having a clear majority has compounded anxieties within this largest grouping. A generally icy interethnic relations environment, and greater communalisation of key developmental challenges have further strained inter-party relations. While it is difficult to anticipate political developments following Supreme Court intervention in mid 2003, a number of outcomes may be considered.

Firstly, following a Supreme Court restatement of the constitutional provision, it may still be the case that the main parties find a way of scuttling any agreement on a multiparty cabinet government. Alternatively, Fiji may move towards a multiparty cabinet government, which, in the absence of agreements on main ethnic development challenges, would in all respects be unworkable. Third, is the possibility of early general elections – leading to a fresh cycle of communal electoral competition following the collapse of multiparty cabinet government and another series of divisive legal activism. Labour may opt to stay out having re-asserted the constitutional provisions, or may indeed go further and impose other forms of sanctions aimed at disrupting the parliamentary process. More extreme scenarios include a fresh wave of communal violence and orchestrated public disorder. New pressures upon the multiparty provisions in the Constitution can potentially harm the core settlements around which the constitution is framed.

Clearly, the multiparty cabinet government lies at the heart of the 1997 constitutional accommodation. To undermine this provision means that the central mechanism for problem solving is made redundant. It amplifies the concessions that leaders made during a difficult process of compromise and consensus. Interventions are therefore required to achieve broad based commitment to this approach and method. This may require cohesive engagement by a number of actors. These include CCF and civil society more generally in helping to generate broader understanding about MPCG and in assisting key players to engage with an alternative governance structure. Key developmental actors in helping to transform a communally charged and intra-communally fragmented environment. Key external actors in assisting parties to engage with the challenge of transition to multiparty cabinet government. Party leaders and parliamentarians to help shape public opinion. Fiji’s media. But more than generating broad commitments to multiparty cabinet government, attention needs to be paid to assisting key players to prepare for and overcome difficulties in forming and operating multiparty cabinet governments. A commitment to merely discussing these further, perhaps through the TALANOA process may in itself assist the parties to move beyond the deadlocks that stand in way of inter-party and hence inter community cooperation presently. Issues for the International Community But domestic actors alone cannot achieve the transformation that is necessary for sustainable multiparty governments.

Fiji’s development partners have a clear role to play. They need to perhaps better appreciate that the constitution is a product of accommodation and delicate compromise. It has adopted a formulation for government that prima face may appear unworkable to outside observers. But it provides the main building block for the whole of the constitution. To tinker with multiparty provisions would inevitably mean that other fundamental parts become open to re-negotiation. Such components would include electoral arrangements; reserved seats ratios, senate composition etc – and this may be lead to a fresh cycle of political uncertainty. It must be remembered that given the communal nature of issues, key constitutional settlements at each phase of Fiji’s recent development have been the outcomes of years of conflict and accommodation. A fresh cycle is something Fiji cannot afford now especially when its public institutions have been so visibly weakened.

Developmental partners can assist parties and civil society to gently rupture the association between ‘race and government’ to allow more inclusive and broad based governance framework to emerge. Multiparty cabinet government that is constitutionally provided for is, at this stage of Fiji’s development remains the only sure option available for ensuring broad based governments. The alternative of ‘power sharing’ between willing partners look less workable when the communities are so divided because of the way on which communal pressures have become locked into the domestic political economy (Fijian marginalisation in commerce, Indo-Fijian dislocation because of land lease expiry etc.). These are unlikely to change in the short term. Fourthly, in the absence of a broad based system of government, key agencies – including public service, police, and military become effectively accountable to ethnic rather than national governments. At their peak levels, they may become more communal in orientation and thus a larger part of the problem. The longer this persists, the more intractable this problem will become. Since 2000 especially, many state institutions and agencies have experienced some erosion in their credibility. This trend needs to be arrested. When a culture of public accountability, whistle blowing etc is absent or weakly established, a check and balance that can work is one where at peak level of government there is transparency (on allocation and targeting of resources for example) between ethnically based competitors for political power. The winners keep each other in check.

Overall, the international community needs to more fully appreciate the broader objectives of the multiparty cabinet government as a problem solving mechanism and thus for improving the governance framework overall. Section 99 of the constitution is not the problem – it is the solution to Fiji’s problems. It is time for a series of well-considered interventions aimed at achieving modest transformations in the political and communal climate to assist Fiji’s transition to multiparty government. The international community and the Commonwealth Secretariat especially can help to create opportunities facilitate this process.

Next steps This CCF workshop can identify the steps that are necessary to allow a smooth transition to a MPCG in Fiji. Such steps may include

  • Providing guidance for developing procedures for cabinet composition, including ranking portfolios, guidelines for trading ministries, limiting and defining the size of cabinet. · Developing guidelines about policy formulation and law making under a multiparty framework.
  • Identifying the menu of options needed to make the parliamentary procedures coherent with a MPCG, including transformation of parliamentary secretariat, composition and procedures for parliamentary committees and related themes.
  • Encourage policy makers to examine modest changes in cabinet support structures, more meaningful notions of inner and outer cabinets, review of cabinet procedures and relations between Prime minister and heads of parties and cabinet ministers.
  • Promote public discussion and understanding about the complex issues involved in this transition.
  • All our discussions drew attention to the fact that Fiji’s ethnically constructed economy gives rise to complex developmental challenges that assume an ethnic character. Unless a road map for resolving these is adopted, a transition to and operation of multiparty government will remain problematic.
  • It is also possible to identify and make recommendations about technical assistance that may benefit political parties, parliamentary secretariat, cabinet office, and other relevant institutions to enable them to engage with complex transitional and operational issues. By its own CMAG mandate, the Commonwealth Secretariat has a significant role to play during this period. It can encourage the Parliamentary Secretariat and government to take urgent steps to discuss the complex issues and engage political parties in that process. It can provide technical assistance to
  • Help reform parliamentary procedures and civil service administrative arrangements to support a multiparty government,
  • Help develop modalities and voluntary guidelines for operating multiparty cabinet,
  • Promote some understanding and options for dealing with key “communal developmental problems” and initiate multidonor engagement with them.
  • Help convene a workshop through the Parliamentary Secretariat for key leaders soon after the court’s ruling in early July. Community support A lot remains to be done to win public support about MPCG – especially with respect to continuing concerns about the protection and advancement of Fijian rights and interests when non-Fijian representation is significantly increased in cabinet. Segments of Fijian community will need assurances that a multiparty government will not result in a dilution of their rights and interests in specific ways. The CCF may
  • Prepare clear and short documents in the vernacular on multiparty cabinet government and that also adequately addresses the concerns and criticisms that have been raised about it.
  • Hold radio talk back sessions.
  • Convene public lectures and seminars.
  • Present clear and well informed and regular opinion columns in newspapers
  • Engage with relevant institution to discuss the relevant issues and to encourage them to begin to think about issues that go beyond the grounds covered in the Korolevu Declaration.
  • Commission papers that reflect on international good practices that may be relevant to the Fiji context. Concluding Remarks Fiji’s civil society, its political parties, development partners, and overseas governments need to work cohesively and strategically in order to increase the prospects for a credible multiparty cabinet government. A multiparty cabinet government can help to reduce ethnic and other forms of conflict, transform its divisive governance regime and enhance its economic development.

Given the poor state of inter-communal and inter-party relations, the responsibility upon civil society is great. It needs to create opportunities for dialogue and support consensus building. It can introduce well-researched options and strategies relating to multi-party party government for broader public discussion and as basis for dialogue between the principal political parties as a matter of priority.

This workshop makes a useful start.

Satendra Prasad CCF Steering Committee and Asia Pacific University, Japan) Friday, 23 May 2003 (Comments are welcome. Satendra@apu.ac.jp) ( For further information about the CCF see www.ccf.org.fj)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *