Saturday, February 02, 2008

Desperate for democracy

SUBHASH APPANA
Friday, February 01, 2008

The search for true democracy in Fiji has been long and arduous. Many have lamented the violent death of the 1970 Constitution at the hands of Rabuka's hitmen.

There have been unending discussions of "if only" that constitution had been allowed to deliver.

Fiji was indeed at Rostov's "take-off" stage in 1987. Unfortunately there were those who supported that constitution only so long as it ensured political paramountcy in perpetuity.

Its electoral provisions were designed for exactly that.

The disproportionate number of seats allocated to "generals" and the carefully crafted cross-voting seats were meant to give the Alliance Party a sure head start every time.

Moreover, the two major ethnic groups were supposed to vote on strictly racial lines. If anything, the personal cross-cultural appeal of Ratu Mara would have ensured an Indian Alliance presence within government. That was the electoral focus of the 1970 constitution.

None of its engineers foresaw a convergence of cross-ethnic concerns at any time in future. That racial premise was supposed to hold in perpetuity.

Unfortunately the formation of the Fiji Labour Party in 1985 showed that race could be subordinated to bigger more pressing issues in Fiji.

Mutual concerns mixed with a bigger national agenda was the antidote to the race venom that had been such a salient strategic tool in Fiji's politics up till then.

Two years later the Alliance government fell and the whole set of premises (some articulated and some silent) on which the 1970 constitution rested was suddenly brought up for serious review.

A golden opportunity stared our leaders to steer Fiji onto a higher political plain, but power-play, parochial self-interest and opportunism ruled and those who had been revered and relied on came away permanently tainted.

Race suddenly became an issue of primary public concern; every problem was blamed on the kai idia because that provided a ready-made justification for the 1987 coup.

A string of punitive measures were put in place to harass and subjugate the Indo-Fijian community: humiliating searches by immigration officers, caps on capital transfer, blacklists, Sunday bans (no business, no picnics, no leisure, etc.) just to name a few. It came to a stage where even if it rained suddenly it was blamed on the kai idia.

The nationalists had a field day, calls were made for an all Fijian parliament, the "Indians go back home" slogan was again on the agenda.

And the notorious 1990 constitution was promulgated with the support of all of those Fijian institutions that had previously championed democracy amid token support from hand-picked Indo-Fijian representatives.

Rabuka as the newly elected PM knew that something was amiss. His concerted search for answers led to a personal accord with Jai Ram Reddy and the 1997 constitution was born.

That achievement cannot be taken away from either man despite the shortcomings of that constitution.

It is instructive that bigger agenda ruled that exercise — national interest superseded opportunistic short-term focus.

It can be argued by political sceptics that the 1997 constitution was supposed to propel both gentlemen into government. That is true, but the main difference between that and earlier constitutions was that electoral provisions were not designed for perpetual victory.

They were more focused on the collective and the designing of an appropriate democratic framework for Fiji.

That is precisely why it is invoked repeatedly in the aftermath of the 2006 coup by supporters and critics alike.

Now we are talking about a People's Charter that would guide Fiji and presumably help bring about necessary changes to the 1997 constitution.

This represents an ongoing search for a democracy that is suitable for Fiji. And the main glaring weaknesses of that constitution lie in its electoral provisions and the requirement for a multi-party cabinet.

A number of factors will need to be considered seriously for modifying the electoral provisions.

Firstly, population proportions have changed significantly since 1997 both in terms of ethnic composition as well as geographic concentration. Parliament must now comprise 37 per cent Indo-Fijians, 57 per cent Fijians and 6 per cent others.

In addition to this, Fijian representation must reflect urban-rural population concentrations.

The present constitution is heavily biased towards rural representation, and this is where the voting has historically been less issues-related. After all for democracy to deliver the voter must make an informed rational choice.

Secondly, constitutional boundaries need to be redrawn so that the number of voters that a member of parliament represents is balanced rather than skewed as at present where some represent 4000 while others represent as many as 16,000 voters.

This is why the constitutional boundaries commission has to be membered by people who are seen to be professional and non-partisan.

Thirdly, representativeness is an issue that lies at the centre of any democratic framework of governance.

Under the 1997 constitution, the NFP polled some 30 per cent of the Indo-Fijian vote in 1999, but ended up with zero parliamentary representation rendering their supporters voiceless for the next 5 years. That is not how a representative democracy should work.

This brings us to the most contentious and pressing issue that needs a serious selfless relook in the 1997 constitution.

The present preferential voting system where parties who cannot win outright at the first count choose to hand their votes to other preferred candidates on behalf of the voters makes a mockery of the whole concept of public choice as this gives the party precedence over the voter in choosing who ultimately represents them.

And the requirement for a multi-party cabinet further distorts the picture no matter how noble and visionary its original intentions were.

The public will recall Qarase's bloated cabinet of 36 with its associated costs. That was a mischievous response to a constitutional provision that was seen as a nuisance.

The bigger agenda of giving Fiji the best as envisaged by that constitutional provision did not matter.

In other words, just as forced marriages have a very slim chance of working, that constitutional provision for a multi-party cabinet may be too ambitious.

It is sad that the historically misguided preoccupation with shackling, curtailing and blaming the kai idia has diverted attention from the real issues facing the country.

There needs to be an understanding and appreciation of the fact that the Indo-Fijian no longer poses a political threat to Fijian rule. In fact the exodus continues like a tap that has lost its washer. That washer cannot be replaced because it's gone out of production with repeated political uncertainty.

Fiji needs to appreciate the fact that democracy is an answer that calls for honesty and a bigger concern for nation rather than self; therein lies the solution for true democracy Fiji-style. The opinions contained here are those of the author and not necessarily shared by his employer, The University of the South Pacific, or any other organisations both local and foreign that he may be associated with

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