Fiji Processes of Conflict Resolution – Constitutional and Extra-Constitutional
12th March, 2008
By Akuila Yabaki, CEO, CCF
The Reeves Commission Review Team completed its work in 1996. It recommended that the 1990 Constitution which gave indigenous Fijians more seats in Parliament than any other ethnic group should be overhauled in order to set the nation on a new path towards inter-ethnic harmony.
It set out new guidelines for government, with more opportunities for people to have a say. It lay out rules to help us to keep check on government’s activities, to make sure that government officials do not abuse their powers or privileges; and it gave us the assurance that our fundamental rights and freedoms, both as individuals and as members of groups, are protected.
So the 1997 Constitution was seen therefore as a fresh start.
One great strength of the 1997 Constitution is that it tries to promote greater cooperation between our two largest groups, indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians, while at the same time protecting indigenous rights and the traditional way of life.
The 1997 Constitution also promotes important social values. When one reads of shared values like “living in harmony”, “promoting social justice”, “respect for human dignity” and “the importance of the family” outlined in the constitution one sees the emphasis and importance that we, the people of Fiji, give to them.
Generally, there were 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 Fijian land and resources were under threat by an Indo-Fijian dominated government.
We have had two coups in the past ten years – despite having the 1997 Constitution and multi-party provisions. This clearly shows that things have not worked out in the manner of the spirit of the 1997 Constitution.
In the 1999 elections, the Reeves Commission’s expectation of political moderation and sharing of issues did not happen. 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.
‘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.
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
- 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 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.
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 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.
- 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.
- 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.
The 2006 Elections
The 2006 results were similar to 2001. In fact, the claims of vote-rigging and voter manipulation increased in 2006 and there were court cases to challenge the results of some seats. The ethnic polarisation in the 2006 elections can be described as the worst in the history of Fiji with SDL winning almost all Fijian seats and the FLP winning almost all the Indo-Fijian seats. None of the other political parties won a single seat. This election played on the worst fears of voters. The moderate political parties were wiped out.
Although the 2006 election results showed a clear failure to achieve the spirit of the 1997 Constitution, some hope was rekindled after the formation of a multi-party government between SDL and FLP. However, the persistence by SDL to continue with implementation of racist policies was a clear indication that their commitment to multi-culturalism was not real and was just a façade. The deteriorating relations between SDL and the military resulted in the coup of December 2006. This was the first time that the Fiji military had removed a Fijian dominated government. The reasons given by the military date back to the illegal takeovers of 2000 and 1987. This again brings us back to the conclusion that Fiji will only be able to move forward through a deep reflection of everything that has gone wrong since the 1987 coup, and find a way to mend the damage and move forward.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- Fiji needs to find a middle way to resolve the problems that has resulted in the four coups. CCF is participating in the Charter process which we hope will enable us to find this middle ground. It has been dismissed by the deposed SDL government and the Assembly of Christian Churches (ACCF) as unconstitutional and that it should be left to an elected government.
The charter will not provide all the answers but nor will the election of 2009. We have deep seated ills which can be resolved collectively now through political dialogue.
Reconciliation needs to start now because the 2009 election is bound to be racially divisive.
The SDL court Case on the illegality of the coup is likely to worsen relations with the interim administration, if they win it, which is likely.
If the result rules in favour of Qarase, the interim administration is like to appeal it and this could be a reason for delaying the 2009 Elections.
Fiji needs to go the middle way. This middle way can be derived through the process of the Peoples’ Charter for Change, Peace and Progress. It has been said the Charter it is an exercise in possibilities founded on a commitment to justice for all, dignity and decency, giving us an alternative vision, embracing the positive ideas of our past, envisioning the ideals of our future.