Friday, August 22, 2008

Twisting the nation’s electoral arms

The proposed electoral system: twisting the nation’s arms
8/21/2008, by Victor Lala

For more than a decade Father David Arms has been criticising the present electoral system and proposing alternatives without any official takers until the military burst on to the political scene in December 2006 after overthrowing the SDL-FLP multi-party Cabinet of Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase.
The coup provided a fertile opportunity for Father Arms to resurrect his pet electoral project.

He joined the National Council for Building a Better Fiji, publicly declaring that the NCBBF should take the opportunity of the military coup and push through changes to the electoral system. His suggestion attracted the wrath of ousted Opposition leader Mick Beddoes who described the comments as “treasonous”.

Father Arms suggested that “As the military regime was more or less acting outside the Constitution, the NCBBF should take the opportunity to push through the electoral reforms and amend the Constitution, by taking advantage of the military authority and ignoring the legal constitutional requirements for making such changes”. Mr Beddoes said he was dismayed at the ease by which a few “men of God” had become biased in favour of the perpetrators of treason.

Beddoes continued: “They have allowed their principles to be easily compromised by opting for shortcut solutions to our problems because of the sway of the gun. God did not take any short cuts; he gave his only son so that he died in order to save the sinners of the world.

Yet here in Fiji we have at least four of his messengers, shamefully proclaiming the need for change in support of a military junta, whose actions to date have been against the will of the people.”

There is no doubt that electoral reform can have an impact on a political system in a number of ways.

The most obvious is to alter the distribution of parliamentary seats, and hence the relative importance, or even persistence, of the various parties. If the changes are sufficiently extreme, one may even see a fundamental change in the nature of the party system.

Parties and politicians may also adapt in the face of altered constraints and opportunities. A party may conclude alliances or mutual stand-down agreements while in other circumstances it would compete individually; the party may adopt a catch-all strategy while in other circumstances it would adopt a strategy of mobilising a more narrowly defined clientele.

In other words, while the translation of preferences into votes reflects the strategic choices of voters, the set of competitors about which voters are allowed to express preferences reflect the strategic choices of the parties and candidates. Overall, political behaviour is not simply the consequence of adaptation to the environment-it is not a case of change the environment and political actors will mechanically fall into line. It also reflects the ability of political actors to shape the environment, and to find “wiggle room” within it, so as to pursue their multiple private and public objectives.

As I have written elsewhere, the FLP exploited the Alternative Voting (AV) System to come to power in the 1999 general elections, and hoped to repeat its win in the 2001 and 2006 general elections. But after losing two consecutive general elections, it now supports Father Arms’ proposal to the NCBBF for electoral changes.

In January 1997, one of the drafters of the 1997 Constitution, Brij Lal, organised a workshop at the Australian National University’s Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies on the Fiji Constitution Review Constitution (henceforth the CRC).

The discussion papers were later published in 1997 as a book titled Electoral Systems in Divided Societies: the Fiji Constitution Review.

At the workshop, Father Arms, who had called Mahendra Chaudhry a “saint” in politics, had also presented a paper titled “Fiji’s proposed new voting system: a critique with counter-proposals”.

Father Arms dissented from the consensus in favour of the AV.

He went back a step further to dissent from the priority that the Reeves Commission gave to multi-ethnic government. Instead, Father Arms argued, the electoral system should have tried to represent the whole spectrum of opinion in the electorate, including minority views, even if these were racist or extreme.

Father Arms was suspicious of deals, accommodations and engineering outcomes. People in Fiji, he suspected, would continue to vote on ethnic lines, and a system that tried to marginalise these expressions of opinion would only drive them outside it.

He was sympathetic to the use of AV when one official was being elected (for example, a president).

However, when a number of representatives were being elected simultaneously (as in Parliament), he was concerned that a minority interest of viewpoint may be systematically unrepresented.

Father Arms favoured the Single Transferable Vote (STV) as a means of ensuring that parties, interests and viewpoints were represented in parliament in proportion to their distribution among the electorate, and he cited the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which provides that the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government.

He commented on his counter-proposals which included the STV system, the will of the people and neutrality, fairness and proportionality, accountability and responsibility, effective votes and effective choice, basis for STV in the CRC’s report, and drawbacks to STV.

In his conclusion, Father Arms declared: “The electoral system recommended by the CRC [Reeves Commission] is seriously defective.

The STV system is demonstrably far superior to it. What defects the STV system has are minor, especially when compared with the defects of the 1970, and 1990, or the CRC’s systems. STV builds on much of what the CRC itself has proposed. Further, it was also advocated for open seats by the Street Commission, using excellent argumentation. STV is a transparently fair system which would operate very well in a multi-ethnic country like Fiji. It is a system that demonstrably seeks out and respects the people’s will. Fiji’s people deserve that much.”

His arguments and alternatives gathered dust as the FLP, SDL, NAP and other political parties fought, won, and lost the last two general elections. The 5 December 2006 coup and its offspring the NCBBF saw Father Arms once again resurrect his paper, which has finally become the holy grail of the military, the FLP, and the coup apologists. And the nation is now being held hostage into supporting it, as a pre-condition to returning Fiji to constitutional democracy.

In June, the NCBBF, in a statement noted that Fiji urgently needed a new electoral system for at least the following reasons: a major impediment to Fiji’s return to parliamentary democracy is that the current electoral and voting system itself is undemocratic; current electoral rules do not enable “government of the people, by the people, for the people” in that the voting and electoral system that is used is not free and fair; it lacks legitimacy as it does not enable the will of the people to be adequately reflected; it violates the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights by not providing for one vote to have one value.

The NCBBF communiqué declared that the present electoral system disadvantages and thereby reduces the number of women and minorities who go into politics.

The disproportion in representation between voters living in rural and urban areas and within Fijian provincial/communal constituencies is contrary to the principle of equal number of voters in constituencies and of one person, one vote, one value; the current electoral system is a serious hindrance to the attainment of a national identity for the people of Fiji; the choice between voting above the line for a party’s list of candidates or voting for participant candidates below the line is not understood; a high proportion of voters (up to 12 per cent) have had their votes disallowed.

In this context, the NCBBF reiterated its concern that holding another election in Fiji under existing electoral rules would be flawed because it would amount to seeking to elect a democratically elected government under electoral rules, that are undemocratic.

Apprehension was expressed that any government elected in this way would be denied legitimacy and credibility thus leading to further political instability.

The NCBBF touched on issues like restoration of democracy, legitimacy, accountability, policy direction (party mandate), representation (social mirroring), simplifying the voting system, neutrality, acceptability, etc, etc, etc. To cut it short, the NCBBF was merely mouthing everything that Father Arms had felt was wrong with the electoral system, when he delivered his paper at the ANU in 1997.

What the NCBBF and Father Arms did not comment upon was the reason why the multi-party government was ousted, and that was because Father Arms “political saint” – Mahendra Chaudhry - had refused to accept that he was no longer in control of the portals of power in Fiji. And the military rulers and its apologists are still marching on because the FLP did not stand up to defend democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.

What the NCBBF and Father Arms did not recommend in moving Fiji forward was that the likes of Mr Chaudhry should be banned from participating in national politics as a salutary lesson to others that never again should a politician be allowed to take advantage of their race and become an overnight multi-millionaire.

After all, it was the very electoral system which Father Arms wants changed, which saw Mr Chaudhry and his FLP storm to power in the 1999 general elections. And it was the refusal of George Speight and others to accept the 1999 general election results, achieved through the same AV system that enabled Mr Chaudhry to secretly obtain $2million from his ancestral homeland of Haryana in India.

It is instructive to note that Father Arms, also on the board of the Citizens Constitutional Forum (CCF), concedes that the military is more or less acting outside the 1997 Constitution and yet the draft People’s Charter, to which he is a party, claims to uphold the Constitution.

Those of us who have studied and analysed the general election results of 1999, 2001 and 2006 could argue that Father Arms’ arguments are skewed, convoluted, and questionable. What is important, however, is that he must not be allowed to push through his alternative electoral system from behind the barrel of a gun, even though he has the backing of the Fiji Labour Party, and Commodore Frank Bainimarama and his military cohorts.

Father Arms’ Machiavellian use of the 5 December 2006 coup to try and push his elusive electoral reform agenda should be resisted and condemned by all those who want Fiji to return to constitutional democracy.

He must not be allowed to take advantage of the military coup. For as Mick Beddoes said, even Jesus did not take a short cut to the Holy Cross.

The views expressed are those of Victor Lal and not those of the Fiji SUN. Mr Lal is the author of Fiji: Coups in Paradise – Race, Politics and Military Intervention. E-mail:

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