On 17 September, Fiji goes to the polls for the first time in eight years. This is a notable step forward given that, when I spoke to people in Suva a year ago, they were still phrasing things in terms of ‘IF the election happens’. With the first pre-polling stations having opened a few days ago, that ‘if’ has become a very definite and proximate ‘when’. Assurances have been given both by Rear Admiral Bainimarama and by Brigadier-General Tikoitoga, the new commander of the Fijian military, that the results of the election will be respected. If these promises can be taken on faith then the question is not if Fiji will return to democracy, but how well the transition will be managed. The critics of the Bainimarama Government have always demanded elections for Fiji, but also that those elections should be free and fair. In that regard Fiji’s outlook is mixed. Prominent experts, including the Deputy Head of the EU delegation to the Pacific, believe that the results on the polling day will reasonably reflect the will of the people. As far as the vote itself goes, that is likely to be true. Despite reports of at least one case of voters being defrauded, widespread blunt-force cheating probably won’t be an issue. The ballot boxes aren’t likely to be stuffed, there is no evidence that voters have been disenfranchised and I would not expect to see intimidation at polling stations. Fijian citizens who cast their vote can feel safe that it will go to whomever they select on the ballot paper and that they will be able to make their choice safely. So far, so good. By world standards of elections after prolonged military rule, Fiji is doing well.
However, a truly free and fair election requires more than the absence of extra ballots stuffed into the box. Yes, voters need to be free to make their choice on the day, but the process by which they reach their decision also needs to be fair. In a free and fair election, political parties compete on as level a playing field as the system can enforce. This is where the election process in Fiji stands on shakier ground.
In recent months there have been a string of controversies and criticisms of the way the Bainimarama Government is handling the transition to democracy. I will touch briefly on three areas: balance of media coverage, participation of NGOs in the electoral process, and issues surrounding candidate nominations.
Full Article: Fiji’s election: Fair and free?.