OpenGov Voices: To be or not to be — Democracy in Fiji 2014?

An image of Andrea Abel van Es, Program Manager: Money, Politics & Transparency Project at the Electoral Integrity Project
Andrea Abel van Es, Program Manager: Money, Politics & Transparency Project at the Electoral Integrity Project. Image credit: Electoral Integrity Project

Fiji, a small island nation in the Pacific Ocean, is probably most renowned for its beautiful beaches and reefs, friendly population — and its brutal military dictatorship in place since 2006.

On Sept. 17, 2014, however, Fijians will go to the polls in a historic multi-party parliamentary election.

So, will this be an election to break the military dictatorship and restore democracy? Part of the answer depends on the extent to which the election will be characterized by fair competition — and one of the key determinants of “fairness” is money. More precisely, the system of political finance regulation in place will greatly affect whether or not the political playing field is level.

According to the International IDEA political finance database, between 2003 and 2012, of the 72 countries for which time-series data is available, Fiji was the country that underwent the most radical increases in regulations of political finance.

As the figure below shows, in terms of total quantity of changes in regulations, Fiji sticks out like a sore thumb.

An illustration of the changes in regulations of political finance.

Regulations relate to four main issue areas: bans on donations, financial caps on donations and expenditures, disclosure requirements and public subsidies. The correct mix and quantity of regulations should lead to greater transparency of the political system, greater accountability and ultimately a fairer competition.

But does the introduction of all these regulations in Fiji help to level the political playing field for parties wishing to contest the elections? Anecdotal evidence suggests not.

Limits on campaign spending, which have been set at a very low bar, are unrealistic according to many newer political parties. “To have an effective campaign for our party to reach the most amount of voters, we will need approximately F$250,000 ($135,502 USD). With the limitations in political funding and constant auditing, we are limited to a piecemeal budget which we are aiming to be around F$100,000 ($54,200 USD), relying on membership dues and fundraising,” says Lynda Tabuya from the Peoples’ Democratic Party.

Insufficient funds to campaign also means that new parties face a considerable disadvantage when it comes to brand recognition, a fact further exacerbated by the massively skewed control over media. TV and radio have the furthest reach in terms of population in the Fijian islands, but one party, the Fiji First Party, has clear majority control of airtime. The Fiji First Party, by the way, is headed by one Mr. Bainimarama, the former military officer/self-installed PM of Fiji.

From a basic human rights perspective, Amnesty International has already issued a strong condemnation of the harassment and treatment of journalists not pushing the “party line” in the lead up to the elections

Even more bizarrely, the Fiji Elections Commission has recently issued a decree that parties may not appear with their party symbols on the ballot paper. Instead, three weeks before the election, each contesting party will be assigned a number, and this number will be the only de-marker for parties on the ballot paper. Again, only those parties that can access adequate air-time to campaign around their newly assigned number will probably gain traction with Fiji’s voters – not to mention problems associated with voters that may be illiterate.

On one hand, perhaps we should be breathing a sigh of relief that Fiji is holding elections at all. On the other hand, we may very well be witnessing a case of new high and mighty political finance regulations actually entrenching an incumbent advantage for the Fiji First Party, keeping the political playing field as skewed as ever.

It’ll be worth keeping an eye out on these elections – for better or for worse.

Dr. Andrea Abel van Es joins the Electoral Integrity Project team from her position as lecturer in the Ford Dorsey Program in International Policy Studies at Stanford University. She received her PhD in political science from Stanford University in 2011. Her dissertation was on civil society and interest groups during regime transitions, with a focus on the Communist transition in East and Central Europe. She is a co-founder of the IPRE Group, and consults for local and international development and aid organizations, particularly in the field of design and implementation of impact evaluation projects, as well as quantitative analysis more generally. Hungarian and Australian by cultural background, she speaks several foreign languages and has travelled and worked extensively overseas.

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