Fiji’s Election will be freer and fairer than New Zealand

I am in Suva at the moment investigating Fiji’s path to democracy. Today I visited the Fiji Elections Office, their Electoral Commission, and had an in-depth discussion with the Supervisor
13 Aug 2014 16:45
Fiji’s Election will be freer and fairer than New Zealand
Jason Qareqare named in Fijian Bati’s 50-member squad for the World Cup.

I am in Suva at the moment investigating Fiji’s path to democracy.

Today I visited the Fiji Elections Office, their Electoral Commission, and had an in-depth discussion with the Supervisor of Elections, Mohammed Saneem.

My questions and discussion focused on whether or not Fiji would be having free and fair elections on September 17.
In past elections there have been several incidences of vote tampering, ballot box stacking and in one particular example more votes cast than registered electors in a constituency.

Despite international observers in the past declaring elections free and fair it is obvious to all that Fiji’s past elections have been far from that.

Independence of Fiji Elections Office
The Fiji Elections Office is independent, just like New Zealand’s Electoral Commission. They are charged with overseeing the election and electoral law, which at present is by decree, but it is the law nonetheless.

I spent quite a bit of time understanding their voting processes and there are some quite innovative techniques they are utilising to combat voter fraud and vote rigging.

Voter Registration
The first step has been a comprehensive voter education and registration process that has been running for two years. Registered voters have a voter id card, this is not at all like the Easy Vote card that is so easily rorted in NZ.  The Fijian voter registration card is a photo id, it also contains biometric data (fingerprints) which require a match of at least 8 points.

The Fijian registered voters carry these cards everywhere. When I asked my cab diver last night, when I arrived in Suva, if he was registered to vote, he reached into his pocket and flourished it with obvious pride. Everyone eligible and registered to vote has one of these and a random sample on the streets shows that everyone without fail carries it.

What this means is that only registered voters will be able to vote, and they require the photo and biometric identification in order to vote. This is a significant advancement over our voter registration processes in NZ. I should know as I have just watched my 18-year-old son register to vote in NZ and our processes are farcical to say the least compared to what Fiji has initiated.

Security of ballots
The next step in ensuring that votes are secure is the voting system itself. The voting booths are replicas of NZ voting booths. In fact they have been supplied from New Zealand. This is a change from Fiji’s previous system for voting where a voter entered a secluded booth and could cast their vote. No one could see them vote, or indeed see if anything was produced from pockets or shirts to assist in altering or damaging voting papers.

In order to prevent vote stacking the system is very interesting. All the ballot boxes are transparent. So the first voter into a polling station to cast their vote, sill be able to see that their vote is indeed the first vote. Likewise all voters can see that the person before them has voted as the ballots, once sealed are placed in the transparent ballot box.

To further ensure vote stacking is prevented voters are assigned an actual polling station to vote at. No more than 500 voters are assigned to a polling station. If a village has 900 registered voter then two polling stations will be established. One will accept 500 voters, and the other 400 voters. You can only vote at the station you have been assigned to unless a special vote request is made before the election.

On election night the votes are counted by officials and must tally with the total allowable votes. It is not possible for a voting station to record more than 500 votes. if they do an investigation is started immediately and all votes from that station are sequestered pending Police and FICAC (Fiji Independent Commission Against Corruption) investigations.

Once counted and the result notified to the FEO the ballots are sealed once again in the ballot boxes and sent to Suva.
They expect to be able to declare results at around 9pm on election night. Previously elections have been conducted over 7 days. Not anymore.

Voter intimidation and behaviour of political parties
They have also established rules around the behaviour of political parties on election day in order to prevent voter intimidation. A zone around each polling station is established that is 300m. No party political colours, signs, hoardings or branding is permitted within the 300m boundary. On top of that political parties are forbidden on election day from displaying colours, ribbons or signage on vehicles nor are they permitted to officially provide transport to or from polling stations and the treating laws and penalties are also very severe.

The famous KFC activities of Labour in South Auckland would result in a FICAC investigation and prosecution.
All very sensible rules and regulations to ensure an intimidation free voting experience while maintaining transparency with the voting process from beginning to end.

So what if there are breaches?
The FEO administers the law, and if they discover breaches and what appears to be a prima facie breach of regulations they immediately refer the complaint to the FICAC who are charged with investigating and if necessary prosecuting offenders.

Both the FEO and the FICAC are independent of government and act under their own set of laws. The Director of Public Prosecutions is not involved at all in these stages, though may become involved after FICAC has completed their investigations an laid charges.

This is in stark contrast to the situation we have in New Zealand where the Electoral Commission refers to the Police who then do absolutely nothing.

Already there are several investigations underway against individuals and political parties for breaching electoral rules. The FICAC is onto it.

One person, One vote, One value
That is the mantra of the FEO and from what I have seen the FEO is looking at ensuring that Fiji will have an election that is free and fair. Certainly a vast improvement on previous elections.

At the FEO HQ there was a +constant  bustle of activity, with elections officials heading out for training sessions, and a general positivity that what they are doing is making a difference. I asked who else in the media from New Zealand has visited and asked similar questions. The answer was telling. No one else.

It staggers me that the likes of Barbara Dreaver and Michael Field, especially, and other journalists have the cheek to write about Fiji’s elections without even finding out precisely what Fiji has done to ensure free and fair elections.

The changes here are astonishing, and I will write on those in coming days. But suffice to say the impression from roaming Suva and interviewing anyone whom I please would suggest that Kiwis are being misled about the changes that Fiji has undertaken. Misled to the point of actually being deliberate and politically motivated.

I have bothered to come here, I have bothered to understand the changes occurring in the country of my birth and I have to say I am proud of what I am witnessing.

Will Fiji’s elections be free and fair?

Yes they will be, indeed I think they will be freer and fairer than New Zealand’s.

– Cameron Slater is the publisher of New Zealand’s most popular blog, Whale Oil, winner of this year’s top blog award at the New Zealand media awards. He is a former editor of the New Zealand Truth newspaper. He was born in Suva and is currently reporting from Fiji


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