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Will Parties Unite to Contest The 2018 Polls And Can It Work?

Will Parties Unite to Contest The 2018 Polls And Can It Work?
Professor Richard Herr
December 28
14:50 2017

As the 2018 General Election gradually draws closer, some opposition parties have once again begun flirting with the idea of contesting under a single banner in order to strengthen their chances of toppling the ruling FijiFirst Government.

However, political analysts like Professor Steven Ratuva and Professor Richard Herr believe that it will take more than a coalition of opposition parties to ensure a win.

The issue of a coalition has come up several times in the past and talks are expected to gather momentum in the coming months.

It follows former People’s Democratic Party leader Lynda Tabuya’s shock move to join the Social Liberal Democratic Party (SODELPA) last week.

In announcing her switch, Ms Tabuya urged the opposition parties to form an alliance.

“My plan is to serve the people of this great nation,” she said.

“I truly believe that the best way we can do that is to unite and fight the elections under one banner. This is because of the five per cent threshold, which means a party has to get about 32,000 votes before it matters. So my immediate political plans are to ensure that all smaller parties join us.”

Fiji Labour Party (FLP) leader Mahendra Chaudhry and Unity Fiji party leader Savenanca Narube have tentatively supported the idea of unifying with other opposition parties.

“In order to achieve a change of Government, the opposition parties will need to forge a grand coalition, under a seat-sharing arrangement, and contest the elections under the Coalition banner with an agreed manifesto,” Mr Chaudhry stated in an email to the Fiji Sun recently.

While Mr Narube said: “At its establishment, Unity Fiji stated that we will promote and encourage political unity. The current situation where there are many parties does not help bring us together.

“We are therefore discussing the possibility of coming together in the appropriate form with all political parties which can include a common list of candidates, pre-election partnership or a post-election coalition arrangement.”

But will an alliance of opposition parties be enough to oust the ruling FijiFirst Party?

The Director of the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, Professor Ratuva, says that voter fragmentation partly helped FijiFirst Party win the 2014 General Election with 60 per cent of the votes.

However, other factors also contributed the win, he said.

“Forming a grand coalition is probably an option but the key is to have a ‘rock star’ candidate to pull in the votes through what political scientists refer to as the ‘coattail effect’,” he said.

“(Voreqe) Bainimarama played this role successfully for FijiFirst and Ro Temumu (Kepa) for SODELPA during the 2014 elections.

“Whether (Sitiveni) Rabuka can replicate Ro Temumu’s coattail following depends on his electoral strategies and how well he can engineer his popularity and support nationally, not just amongst his local support base.”

Mr Bainimarama received the highest number of votes tallied at 202, 459, while Ro Teimumu, in second place, got 49,485.

“Small parties with no ‘rock stars’ may need to devise means of attracting national attention, visibility and popularity.

“The other challenge is how to compromise on a common platform, especially when some parties have different views and revolve around different personalities,” added Professor Ratuva.

Another analyst, Professor Herr, an adjunct Professor of Pacific Governance and Diplomacy at the University of Fiji, shared Professor Ratuva’s sentiments.

Professor Herr said a fragmentation of the votes marginally helped the FijiFirst Party, so the effects of a grand coalition might be minimal at best, going by the 2014 General Election results.

“The main casualty was the FLP vote,” he said.

“A combined PDP and FLP vote would have made them the third most successful party, slightly ahead of the NFP, and (they) would have won three seats, reducing FijiFirst by two and SODELPA by one.”

SODELPA and NFP managed to retain 28.2 and 5.5 per cent of the votes respectively. The other six parties did not make the minimum five per cent threshold needed to win a seat, due to a lack of what Professor  Ratuva described as ‘rockstar’ candidates and the ‘coattail effect.’

Ms Tabuya is so far the only leader to come forward and join another party, in a move that effectively dissolved the PDP. Another former PDP candidate Aman Ravindra-Singh has joined FLP.

The leader of the National Federation Party, Biman Prasad, did not respond to questions posed to him through his General Secretary.

The NFP, which was once backed by a majority of Indo-Fijian voters, is one of the oldest parties in Fiji. In the past, it rejected the prospect of a coalition and contested the 2014 General Election as a single party.

It is likely that some party leaders are wary of forming coalitions after historical lessons from the 1999 General Elections.

Back then the NFP formed a coalition with the Soqosoqo ni Vakavulewa ni Taukei party, led by the then Prime Minister, current SODELPA leader Sitiveni Rabuka. The union of the major indigenous Fijian and Indo-Fijian parties was touted as a show of multi-racial cooperation.

However, the coalition was comprehensively beaten by Chaudhry’s FLP with an overwhelming majority of 37 seats in the 71 member house.

For the first time in its history, NFP failed to win a single seat while the SVT won only 8, and lost the Government.

Some analysts blamed the loss on voter dissatisfaction with the formation of the coalition.

NFP won three seats in the 2014 polls.

If parties do decided to unite, The Political Parties Registration, Conduct, Funding and Disclosures Act 2013 prohibits leaders from transferring party resources to the one they join.

Mr Rabuka was upbeat after including two PDP members – Ms Tabuya and interim president Vijay Singh – in his candidate list.

He is yet to officially invite other parties to join SODELPA, but has been meeting with opposition leaders for the past year.

As the second largest party, SODELPA got the highest the number of votes among opposition parties in 2014 (28.2 per cent). The combined votes of all the opposition parties stood at 40.2 per cent.

Professor Herr, who said that although parties unifying may see the redemption of ‘wasted votes’, it could also carry a consequence.

“The collapse of ‘minor’ parties might reduce the “wasted votes” – those for a party unable to reach the five per cent threshold.  However, this process will just ensure the votes and seats will be more closely correlated,” Herr said.

Another possible stumbling block for the parties would be to find a political compromise, especially if there is to be a ‘seat-sharing arrangement,’ as suggested by Mr Chaudhry.

“The concept of a coalition means working together on some – but not necessarily all – agreed objectives. The core objectives for the coalition have to be agreed so they can work together,” said Professor Herr.

“It is impossible to imagine any coalition of independent parties without compromises on managing their relationship in Parliament.”

Feedback:  sheldon.chanel@fijisun.com.fj

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