David Neilson: What if Fiji ballot was less than 'free and fair'?

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The New Zealand Government has consistently opposed last year's military takeover in Fiji because it believes the overthrown United Fiji (SDL) Government was democratically elected.

This view is shared generally by First World countries and by the election monitoring observer missions that gave the 2006 election their stamps of approval.

And this view has been faithfully represented by the New Zealand media.

But almost no attention has been paid to the evidence raised by the Fiji Labour Party and others in Fiji that brings into question the validity of the 2006 election result.

The approach of the First World to emerging democracies is to validate elections and punish military governments that depose elected governments.

Elections are validated whether or not they were free and fair.

Military governments are opposed, regardless of the situation or their intentions. They are given the message that an election must be held as soon as possible, or there will be consequences.

While it could be argued that this will over time embed democracy, this approach has serious flaws. Validating any election may simply lead to a legitimacy crisis among an increasingly cynical citizenry.

Such an approach also reflects a "First Worldism" which is unable to deal with the problems of a non-genuine election.

In countries like New Zealand and Australia, the idea that electoral rolls could be manipulated or ballot boxes tampered with is almost unthinkable.

But what if the Fiji general election was rigged and the existing regime is genuinely committed to the suspending of a flawed democratic process in order to restore the conditions of a genuine democratic process?

Simply offering negative discourse and sanctions against the military Government may just be destabilising and undermine the capacity of such a Government to follow its agenda. A more constructive and practical approach to helping to create the conditions of a free election is implied instead.

The Fiji Human Rights Commission has released the Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Fiji 2006 General Elections. It challenges the view that last year's general elections were democratic.

The inquiry, based on public submissions throughout the major islands of Fiji, identifies deficiencies and anomalies at every stage of the election process.

Moreover, the evidence strongly indicates a pattern of bias that clearly disadvantaged Indian voters and the Fiji Labour Party, while clearly advantaging the SDL party.

Strong indicative evidence is provided of not only technical deficiencies in the election's administration but, more significantly, that there was bias in those deficiencies.

In contrast to the inquiry, the observer missions, while identifying general technical deficiencies, did not look for, and therefore did not find, any pattern of bias.

Nearly all problems of non-registration and mis-registration were experienced by Indian voters. Also, problems tended to be in the main urban open constituencies where elections are won and lost in Fiji.

The recurring experience among Indian voters in these constituencies in particular was of correct registration in the communal constituency and mis-registration in the open constituency. This suggests problems were not randomly experienced and indicate a deliberate and intentional plan to influence the election outcome.

Incorrect information on voting was given in Hindi to Indian voters, and correct information in Fijian to Fijian voters.

The registration process was both inadequate and biased and submissions strongly indicate campaigning involved deliberate and explicit vote-buying near polling day by the SDL party in league with the broader state.

There was a massive over-printing of ballot-papers, and to this day the elections office has not accounted for them all. Indeed, it has still not provided a final Elections Report. Evidence of rigging of the vote count was also presented: ballot boxes tampered with and unofficial vehicles and people left in charge of ballot boxes before counting.

The evidence does not provide systematic quantitative proof regarding the extent to which bias and vote-rigging altered the election outcome. But it provides a strong prima facie case that the elections clearly fell short of "free and fair".

But the report's major concern is to address the problems of the 2006 elections in practical and constructive ways so a genuine election can be held in Fiji as soon as possible. It makes a total of 32 recommendations for reform.

The New Zealand Government continues to say the SDL was democratically elected in a free and fair election. Foreign Minister Winston Peters recently reiterated this view in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in response to coup leader Commodore Frank Bainimarama.

The evidence presented in the Fiji Human Rights Commission report calls this view, and all its baggage, into question.

* Dr David Neilson was a member of the Commission of Inquiry into the Fiji 2006 General Elections, commissioned by the Fiji Human Rights Commission, and is a senior lecturer at Waikato University.

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