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Peering into a kava bowl, again... predictions for Fiji's election outcome
Specialist in Pacific media and journalism and their contexts, Dr Mark Hayes, is a very close Region and Fiji watcher, as well as traveller Out There.
He sent this Pacific Update, and moves on to ruminate on Fiji's election campaign.
In March, the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) was returned with a comfortable majority in Samoa, though some minor tensions remain, which most Samoans work off on the rugby field or by watching what happens on the rugby field. The Cabinet posts and portfolios were announced on Friday, April 21.
The extended revolution underway in Tonga plods along, though Prime Minister Prince Lavaka Ata 'UlukÇlala resigned suddenly on 11 February 2006, and also gave up his other cabinet portfolios. He was replaced in the interim by the elected Minister of Labour, Dr Feleti Sevele.
On April 20, 2006, the Editor and Publisher of Tonga's main English language On Line news outlet, Matangi Tonga, Pese Fonua, criticised pro-democracy groupings for not getting their act together to form a coherent and focused Opposition or Shadow Government, and this was causing escalating disappointment among the long-suffering Tongans.
"The point is that unless we, the people, are united and form a credible Shadow Government to negotiate with government on issues that are important, it does not look as if there is any way upward and forward, and Tongans who are troubled by the need for reform will remain stuck with the stagnation and the increasingly explosive situation that we are finding ourselves in today," Mr Fonua warned.
Mark returned to Tuvalu in mid-February to do the world's first Live Web Cam Broadcast from .TV Land, and to stand in the middle of Funafuti Atoll, almost up to his knees in the Pacific Ocean, which was seeping up through the atoll with the highest high tide on record late on the afternoon of February 28, 2006 and later that night, waded into a live interview with ABC Radio in Queensland.
A major feature by Dr Hayes, and a spectacular picture spread by New Zealand photographer, Jocelyn Carlin, from their collaboration in Tuvalu in February, will be published as part of a global warming themed issue by Griffith Review in May, 2006.
Elections in Tuvalu are scheduled for August, 2006, and Mark's watching the campaign for the 15 member Fale Parlimene closely.
Recent developments in Indonesia - Australia relations over West Papua, and in The Solomon Islands, have focused attention on the Melanesian Pacific, occasionally described as 'an arc of instability' in the Region in which Australia is the Superpower.
Back in January, 2006, Mark peered into his tanoa (kava bowl) to help Webdiarists better understand what was really going on in Fiji as hysterical 'coup looming' rumours appeared in overseas media.
Mark's earlier contributions to the Webdiary have been What's Going on in Tonga, which discussed, with first-hand observations, a revolution still underway in Tonga, and the original posting of The Sinking of Tuvalu.
Dr Hayes again peers into his tanoa with this commentary on the looming Fiji elections.
Ni sa Bula Vinaka
There are three issues in play in the Fiji election campaign - governance, ethnicity, and the economy.
Teasing these apart, and then reassembling them, gives a much clearer perspective of what's going on in the Barmy, Balmy Isles (called such, by me, because Fiji can be a pretty crazy place at times, and you certainly know you're back there when you walk out of Nadi airport and the humidity and heat hits you in the face).
It's also always very wise to deeply understand that politics in Fiji is played out in a country with a total population of some 846,085 (2005 estimate), of whom about 60% are over 21, Fiji's voting age. The Fiji Elections Office estimates that different ethnic groups make up the population in the following percentages: Indigenous Fijians - 54 percent (274,132), Indians - 37 percent (187,831), Rotumans - 2 percent (10, 153) and General (non-Fijians/Indians/Rotumans) - 7 percent (35,535). The Elections Office estimates there are about 475,000 eligible voters.
However, the Fiji Times on April 18 reported that only one in seven voters actually knew how to cast a valid vote, according to a survey conducted by Tebbutt Research.
I have elsewhere argued that Fiji is not a normally functioning constitutional democracy, though it is nowhere as fragile as the Solomons has turned out to be.
One of the key pieces of evidence for this point is the role of the military. While Commadore Frank has seemed to have quietened down considerably since his rather threatening statements and assertions back in January, which triggered hysterical 'coup looming' rumours, especially overseas, he and the Fiji military have continued their campaign against the Reconciliation, Tolerance and Unity Bill, which still rests before Parliament, and the military's continued its campaign in the rural areas of Fiji to explain its position of opposing the Bill.
"Fiji voters have been warmed by the country's armed forces to accept the outcome of the General Elections come May or face the wrath of the military," the On Line outlet, Fijilive.com, reported on Friday, April 21.
"Spokesman Captain Neumi Leweni told Fijilive that if there was to be unrest, the army would not sit on the sidelines like it did during the upheaval in 2000.
"That is why during our awareness campaign throughout the country we have telling people to abide by the rule of law," he said.
"We don't want to see what happened in the Solomon Islands to happen here." Captain Leweni said it was likely that there could be people who would incite violence if their party lost the elections.
"We cannot rule anything out," he said.
The Deputy President, and the most sensible major player in Fijian affairs, Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, the Roko Tui Bau (and thence Commadore Frank's paramount chief in his vanua of Bau) has continued to make sensible speeches on tolerance, diversity, and electoral reform.
When I last heard Ratu Joni speak, at the opening of the Pacific Islands Political Studies Association (PIPSA) conference in November, 2005, at USP in Suva, he said, ""We must begin to trust each other if this country is to progress the way we want it to. But before that we have to lay the preparatory work to engender that trust by building relationships every day".
He's continued speaking along these lines.
To be sure, the stresses and strains which erupted in the events of 2000 are continuing to simmer, but by no means as strongly as in the lead-up to those events. They continue to haunt Fiji, and are often resurrected when, for example, political players argue that Fiji is not ready to have a non-Indigenous Prime Minister, as Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase repeatedly states.
(I often describe Laisenia Qarase as "Smiling" because he rarely does.)
On Thursday evening, April 20, at a Suva meeting of supporters of the governing Soqosoqo Duavata Ni Lewenivanua Party (SDLV), "Smiling" Laisenia Qarase told supporters, ""Na i wali ni valu oqo esa vakatautaki vei keda na i taukei ena noda na laki veidigidigi (The solution to this war depends on how we Fijians will cast our votes)" (Fiji Sun, 21/4/06).
A very revealing statement if the translation is accurate.
Nobody's quite as crude as to assert, at least in English, that if Fiji again elects the Labour Party to govern, and if the Labour Party again appoints an Indo-Fijian, like Mahendra Chaudhry, to the top slot, red raw anarchy is promised to again erupt in Suva and elsewhere.
In passing, despite occasional on line reports earlier in 2006 that the police were closing in on key coup financiers, nothing has been reported more recently that I've seen along these lines.
But one doesn't have to assert Fiji's not ready for a non-Indigenous PM. Many people, both Indos and Indigenous, though for different reasons, just assume it's a fact.
Indos, still more of whom have voted with their feet since 2000 and migrated overseas, taking their skills with them, largely assume and operate on the assumption that indigenous Fijians will dominate government in the foreseeable future, so they have to accommodate themselves to it or get out.
The Tebbutt Research survey reported earlier also found that younger eligible Indian voters were not likely to register to vote, unlike their cousins in the rural areas. In other words, they couldn't be bothered because they can't see any point, nothing in it for them.
Indigenous Fijians either see Fiji is for Fijians so they have a vanua - legitimated right to run things, or, like educated Indos, they pragmatically accept future governments will be Indigenous-dominated, because the apparent alternative - not an Indo-dominated government but a repeat of 2000-style anarchy - is too awful to contemplate.
The Fiji Times editoralised on April 21, in conclusion:
Leading up to our own general election in May, the Solomon Islands experience is an unfortunate but timely warning of what not to allow.
We must never again allow thugs and opportunists a chance to loot our cities and towns.
We must never again allow a relatively small handful of people to overthrow the wishes of the majority.
Regardless of which way the general election pans out, we should all ensure that the process is a free and fair one. That way the entire country will be clear on what the wishes of the people are.
It is a timely warning - we cannot afford to go back to where the Solomons is now.
Even before the mayhem in the Solomons, you could have safely bet several kilo of yangona (raw kava) that the military, the police, and reliable sources outside them used by the Australian, New Zealand, British, EU, French, and US Embassies would all have their feelers, eyes, and ears deep into the Fijian streets and villages. A former British Ambassador to Fiji once told me that one of his reliable sources of intelligence was the police post down the road from the Embassy where he went for a few bilu of yangona a few afternoons each week.
Speaking of kava, in the last week or so, there've been reports of a kava drought in Fiji because local growers haven't been harvesting enough of the stuff, and kava's had to be imported from Vanuatu! That's like there being a Fosters or XXXX drought here so brewers have to import Steinlager to meet demand!
As a glimpse into how "interesting" (in the Chinese curse sense) the election campaign has become, the former Deputy Prime Minister in the Labour Party government ousted by the first May 2000 coup, Dr Tupeni Baba, is now standing in the northern Suva Samabula/Tamavua Open seat for the SDLV. This is not so much a case of the guy being a raging opportunist or being extremely flexible in the interests of Fiji's future, as it's as case of who he hates less - his former leader in the Labour Party, Mahendra Chaudhry, or the current PM, "Smiling" Laisenia Qarase.
At a SDLV rally at Raiwai, near Suva, on Saturday, April 22, he reportedly said that a vote for anybody except the SDLV would return Fiji to more 'instability, curiosity and anarchy', according to Fijilive.com.
"A new government after the election takes the entire nations backpeddling because they have their own vision, plans and agendas which they want to implement," Dr Baba said.
"We have plans for Fiji, for your future in all aspects of life, economic growth, health, education, elimination of poverty, improving health and social services and all aspects to improve your future," he said, according to Fijilive.com.
In the lead-up to the 2001 elections, by the way, Baba headed the New Labour Unity Party because he argued Chaudhry's Fiji Labour Party was nolonger the Party he helped form. The party won two seats in 2001, but Baba didn't get up. During that campaign, the NLUP received about $FJ 1 million in support from Peter Foster, who regarded Baba as "the Nelson Mandela of the South Pacific". The NLUP has since folded and merged with the National Alliance Party of Fiji, led by the former Chair of the Bose Levu Vakaturaga , Ratu Epeli Ganilau, as a successor to the once great political party of Fiji, the Alliance Party. Ratu Epeli is a son in law of the colossus of Fijian, and indeed Pacific, affairs, the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, and was unceremonously booted out of the Chair of the BLV by "Smiling" Laisenia Qarase because of his criticisms of the SDLV government's affairmative action for Fijian development policies.
From my 'things you can do in Suva' file, one night I was there on my way back from Tuvalu in early March, I was lurking around one of my haunts, JJ's on the Park on Victoria Parade, when in walks the publisher of Islands Business, Robert Keith-Reid. As journos do, we breasted the bar, bought a few rounds of Fiji Bitter, gnawed on the pork rinds, and Robert told me he'd had a tip-off that Peter Foster was back in town and was meeting some associates at JJ's that night. A few exchanges of rumours and a few more Fiji Bitters later, we decided Mr Foster hadn't fronted, but, after Robert left, I'm pretty sure I saw Mr Foster and associates dining in the joint. Suva's a small place.
While on the subject of the National Alliance Party, a source well placed in NGO circles in Suva was adamant that Ratu Epeli's party could scoot between the SDLV and FLP and form government as a surprise 'third force'. I didn't buy that at the time, and later kicked it around with a couple of extremely well placed journos in Suva, neither of whom bought it either. It'd be like the National Party shifting its preferences to the Democrats, and, with disgruntled ALP candidates also handing their preferences to the Democrats, actually forming a coalition government with Family First and a few independents. Fantasy in Australia, but Fiji ain't Australia but I'm hard pressed to figure out how that could happen even in Fiji.
In the 2001 elections, conducted in the very dark shadow of the coups of 2000, the new SDLV party won 26% of the vote and 32 of the 71 seats in the House of Representatives, the Labour Party won 34.8% of the vote but 27 seats, and the NFP won 10.1% and picked up 1 seat. The SDLV was able to form government with the support of the nationalist, pro-coup Matanitu Vanua (Conservative Alliance) Party (CAMV), which attracted 9.9% of the vote and won six seats.
If those figures don't appear to add up, they don't, and the figures don't appear to make sense because of Fiji's three electoral rolls, and then how its voting system works.
The remainder of the votes went to minority parties which, once they could not elect any MPs on their own, shifted their preferences to major parties.
Fiji has three rolls - Indigenous, Indo-Fijian, and General. The Wikipedia entry explains the actual break-up of seats thus:
A constitutional review in 1997 introduced a new system, with 71 members. 25 are elected by universal suffrage from Open constituencies ("open" meaning that the franchise is open to all locally resident Fijian citizens, irrespective of their ethnic background), with the remaining 46 elected from communal constituencies, with 23 seats reserved for ethnic Fijians, 19 for Indo-Fijians, 1 for Rotuman Islanders, and 3 for "General Electors" - Europeans, Chinese, Banaban Islanders, and other minorities. Every Fijian citizen eligible to vote thus has two votes - one for an open electorate, and one for a communal electorate. The system remains controversial, however.
The open constituencies used at present differ from the former national constituencies in that while both comprise all registered voters on a common voters' roll, regardless of race, the open constituencies may be contested by members of any ethnic group whereas the national constituencies were ethnically allocated.
Clear so far? If it isn't, go find a coconut palm somewhere and belt your head against it a few times. Works for me.
The Fiji Elections Office then explains that voters can either vote "Above the Line" or register an "Alternative Vote" on the two ballot papers they will be given.
If they can't read, they can vote alongside the symbol which represents each party or candidate on the ballot papers.
This system would be familiar to Australian electors, at least insofar as "Above the Line" and "Below the Line" goes, not the least because it was imported from here.
Students of the Australian system, especially in electorates where there are many parties and/or several independents or minor parties with no chance of success also standing, would also know how crucial the preference swaps and deals can be once all but a couple of candidates are knocked out of contention.
Things get extremely interesting indeed when, as occurs here, key electorates and/or high profile candidates are targeted by a gaggle of competitor parties, minority, single-issue, parties, and suspicious 'independents' who vigorously deny they're closet majority party supporters or stooges only standing to split the vote against the enemy but won't reveal who actually paid their deposit, required under electoral law to prevent precisely this kind of thing.
In the Ba Open seat, on the north west of Viti Levu, for example, the SDLV is standing two candidates against the sitting member, Mahendra Chaudhry. Most passing strange.
At least in Fiji, all candidates and parties have now registered where their preferences will go. And that's why "Smiling" Laisenia Qarase was railing against the NFP for handing a large swag of preferences in some key electorates to the Labour Party. Ever grateful, Mahendra Chaudhry has annoyed them because they aren't committing all their preferences to Labour.
As of Sunday, April 23, the Elections Office had yet to publish the complete list of preferences from all parties.
The 13 Provincial Councils of Fiji have all endorsed the SDLV, a not unexpected move given their support late in 2005 for the Reconciliation and Unity Bill, but one which drew criticism from several sources, including the Ministry of Fijian Affairs, a spokesperson for which told Fijilive on April 20 that the Councils were supposed to be apolitical. And coconuts fall upwards out there in the hills and islands.
The Churches are also divided, with some elements of the extremely influential Methodist Church, often regarded as the Taukei Movement at prayer, urging support for the SDLV, while other elements are urging their flocks to pray and consider the best interests of Fiji when they vote. Pentecostal Churches, as usual, are stressing moral issues, which, in a highly religious place like Fiji, is always code for "Vote for the SDLV 'cos they're against homosexuality, AIDS, gambling, and prostitution, or you'll go to hell!"
The SDLV is expected to pick up a majority of votes and seats in its core constituences in the Fijian seats and in rural areas, not the least because it merged with its pro-coup minority partner, the CAMV, which would be expected to attract strong Indigenous, nationalist-minded voters. They'll clean up in Lauan seats to the east, Kadavu to the south, and off-shore to the west of Viti Levu. They'll also grab Rotuma.
The Labour Party is expected to pick up a majority of votes and seats in its core constituences in the western Viti Levu and Vanua Levu cane belts, and in towns like Lautoka, Labasa, Ba, probably Nadi, and Suva.
However, once pretty solid voting patterns - Indos vote Labour, Indigenous vote Alliance, then SVT, then SDLV and CAMV - are shifting somewhat, along with the Fijian economy.
Labour's once pretty solid support, geographically as well as ethnically, is shifting as the sugar industry fails. In 2007, Fiji's sugar industry loses its preferential access to the EU market, throwing it into direct competition with the same sources which have hit one of the world's most efficient sugar industries, Australia's, extremely hard. If our sugar farmers cannot compete against global competition, what hope does the Fiji industry, still harvesting by hand and processing in rickety, archaic, unreliable mills, have?
Despite its affirmative action for Fijian development, the SDLV Government's management of the economy, seriously damaged by the events of 2000, has generally been regarded positively.
In its 2006 Asian Development Outlook, the Asian Development Bank said that:
Economic growth in Fiji Islands slowed to an estimated 1.7% in 2005 after average growth of 3.4% in 1999-2004, though tourism and related hotel activity continued to expand. Production of clothing and gold, two important export industries, fell from 2004 levels. The sugar and clothing industries, losing their preferential benefits in overseas markets, need major adjustments to remain viable. GDP growth is expected to edge up to 2% in 2006 and 2.4% in 2007, largely a consequence of gains in tourism as the entry of budget airlines into the market supports the industry. Construction, financial services, fisheries, timber, and transport are projected to record some growth.
In mid-April, the Fiji Government watched anxiously as the Emperor Gold Mine, owned by Australia's Western Mining, at Vatukoula in central Viti Levu announced as many as 200 redundancies. Just the thing to occur during an election campaign in an electorate likely to vote SDLV if there's a bail-out, and FLP if there isn't.
Tourism is Fiji's great hope, and, last time I was in Suva in early March, several sources not usually given to effusive commentary told me how construction of tourism facilities and resorts, particularly on the western side of Viti Levu, on some off-shore islands, and along the Coral Coast, had all but stripped Suva of its tradespeople. Around the capital, there was also considerable hotel refurbishment and construction too.
But rumours of a military coup, genuinely fantastic on my reading of the situation back in late January, do deter tourists, and that's a big worry to tourism operators and the Fijian government.
Just to clearly indicate it's still very much a force to be reckoned with, the Fiji military saw off the Parliament before it was prorogued for the election with a 400 man "exercise march" through parts of Suva, led by Commadore Frank.
This kind of thing sends jitters through an already somewhat nervous business sector, which would support the current government if only because it hasn't completely stuffed up the economy and isn't Labour led by Mahendra Chaudhry, which still has residues of older style socialism in its policies.
Veteran Fiji watcher, Robert Keith-Reid, ended his prognostications on the election in April's Islands Business thus:
The army factor apart, Fiji's electors are influenced by racial, religious and tribal prejudices. They have to grapple with a preferential voting system understood by few, except the political engineers able to manipulate it.
ll this leaves the May election results open. Neither the SDL nor the FLP is capable of winning an outright 36-seat majority in the 71-member House of Representatives...
Inside its campaign offices, the SDL is wary of the danger of erosion of its Fijian support by about 20 small Fijian splinter parties. It has strong support in the rural areas, won with lavish government handouts to villages. But the urban areas contain a fairly high Fijian level of support for the Labour Party. Another complication for it is that in western Fiji, some chiefs favour Labour. They complain that the Qarase government, dominated by eastern chiefs that westerners have long resented, has ignored a region that produces nearly all of Fiji's gold, tourism, sugar and forestry wealth.
The election will be decided in the 25 open seats. More than 100,000 citizens, mostly Indians, have abandoned Fiji since the 1987 coups.
Indigenous Fijians, once in a minority, are now about 52-53% of the population. This proportion is growing due to demographic factors.
The number of Indian registered voters has fallen to 188,000, compared to about 235,000 Fijians. Furthermore, the Electoral Commission has ruled that constituency boundaries do not need to be redrawn, even though in some populations have been swollen by an upsurge of the drift of rural folk to urban areas.
What will emerge from the stew pot after May 13? That's anyone's guess.
And if Robert Keith-Reid cannot figure this out, it's a sure bet nobody else can either.
Fiji being Fiji, however, you can also bet there'll be an awful lot of kava - local or imported - being drunk and the rumour mill, which helps power Suva, will be churning extra vigorously.
Another astute observer, sitting on the back verandah of his bunker on Waimanu Road, Suva, home of Communications Fiji Pty Ltd, of which he's the CEO, is Yellow Bucket, who usually makes his pronnouncements late on Fridays on Fijivillage.com. Unfortunately, the kava shortage must and prevented the weekly talanoa last week, as The Bucket's been empty.
Over 70 observers are expected in Fiji to monitor the elections, coming from the European Union, the Commonwealth, the Pacific Forum, Australia, New Zealand, and Pacific Institute of Advanced Studies in Development and Governance at USP. Plus the usually extremely vigilant Fiji media pack and, no doubt, given Fiji's a place where coups happen and in the sorry light of events in the Solomons, a slew of Regional journalists ranging from highly informed, like the ABC's Sean Dorney, to parachute journalists who'll again, in Kiwi journalist, Michael Field's, immortal phrase, be 'clueless in coup coup land'.
Fiji TV's unleashed a particularly interesting innovation by putting its televised election specials On Line, so check them out to get a feel for both Fiji TV and the debates.
I'll try to get hold of USP's Dr Steven Ratuva during the week and see what his analysis is suggesting once all the preference splits are formally announced.
Voting takes place between May 6 to May 13, with the count commencing on May 15.
Vinaka Vakalevu for your patience and Moce Mada.