Reflections On Our General Election

One of the most reassuring sights in recent years was the group photo of Parliamentarians in front of the new parliament building, standing shoulder to shoulder, with smiles glittering in
21 Oct 2014 10:29
Reflections On Our  General Election

One of the most reassuring sights in recent years was the group photo of Parliamentarians in front of the new parliament building, standing shoulder to shoulder, with smiles glittering in the dry Suva sun. These were the successful ones, those whose parties collected more than 5 per cent of the votes and who were allocated seats according to their respective intra-party rankings. How did we go this far in terms of the election process?

The FijiFirst and SODELPA battle

The competition between FijiFirst and SODELPA was central to determining the victors. SODELPA fought a hard and enterprising battle but fell far short of victory. They were disadvantaged from the beginning by their ethno-nationalist ideological and political strategy aimed fundamentally at mobilising the iTaukei who made up 297,818 (60 per cent) of the total votes of 496,364. This meant that they had to win at least 247,188 (83 per cent) of iTaukei votes to be able to win 25 seats (50 per cent), the minimum threshold for any party to claim victory.

Instead, SODELPA won 139,857 votes which translated into 47 per cent of the total iTaukei votes. But assuming that some Indo-Fijians and minorities voted for SODELPA also, the figure could come down a bit to around 46 per cent iTaukei votes. This meant that about 54 per cent of the iTaukei votes were cast in favour of Fiji First and the other minor parties. This clear division in iTaukei votes is reflective of the shifting nature of iTaukei interests, expectations and political choices in a fast changing social, economic and political environment. This is a significant lesson for electoral strategising in the next election for political parties who hope to win iTaukei votes.

In contrast, FijiFirst had to reach a lower level of difficulty because it had a more trans-ethnic appeal and thus only needed at least 50 per cent of iTaukei votes, 50 per cent of Indo-Fijian votes and 50 per cent of minority votes to win the 25 seats threshold. Their overwhelming 59.17 per cent victory consisted of about 50 per cent iTaukei (the other 4 per cent would have gone to minor parties) together with more than 70 per cent of Indo-Fijian and more than 80 per cent of minority group votes.

SODELPA had to work harder by 33 per cent than FijiFirst to achieve the 25 seats threshold. This disadvantage was clear from the beginning and the only way forward for SODELPA if it is to have a chance of winning the next election is to achieve the 83 per cent iTaukei votes, an impossible feat indeed given the shifting nature of iTaukei votes as mentioned earlier. The other option is to use a trans-ethnic approach like the FijiFirst and hope to rope in other ethnic group support. This means a fundamental transformation in its ethnic and political ideology and position.

SODELPA’s strategy in carving up the single national constituency into 50 sub-constituencies as the focus of campaign for the 50 individual candidates was quite innovative and commendable because it won the party most of their seats. My detailed study of the individual polling station results clearly showed that winning SODELPA candidates did well in their allocated local areas by taking advantage of kinship and other socio-cultural links within the local community. The only SODELPA candidate who collected substantive votes across the sub-constituency boundaries was party leader Ro Teimumu who collected a massive 49,485, light years ahead of Niko Nawaikula who came second with 7348 votes.

However, this strategy worked well in rural areas but not in the semi-urban and urban areas. These were FijiFirst territories.

The FijiFirst approach was in direct contrast to SODELPA. They used the ‘rock star’ phenomenon very strategically by cleverly using the VFR principles (visibility, familiarity and relevance), which underpin the voter-politician relationship in an open Proportional Representation (PR) system. The focus was on maximising the VFR of the already well known party leader, Bainimarama, to draw votes for the party. This also worked well in the context of the number grid system used in the ballot paper where one just needed to remember the 279 number. Also, their presidential campaign style, their use of “cargo cult” politics (provision of development projects) and last minute pro-poor manifesto, amongst others, helped to consolidate their dominance.

These achieved phenomenal results and destroyed every conceivable belief about the PR system which is often assumed to ameliorate disparities in vote as well as seat distribution. With 202,459 votes, Bainimarama’s massive victory,which was more than four times Ro Teimumu’s votes and more than 70 per cent of the total FijiFirst votes, was unprecedented in the history of the PR system anywhere in the world that I am aware of.

FijiFirst had the historical advantage over other parties in terms of resources and the fact that they were in power in the form of the post-coup regime and had control over the political and coercive means to restrict the media and freedom of association and was in control of development projects which it marketed effectively to voters. Eight years of authoritarian rule and unrivalled hegemony entrenched their visibility, familiarity and relevance in the consciousness of voters. If the election had taken place in 2009, FijiFirst would have lost badly since the country was still going through a turbulent period and the party had very little to market to voters at that stage.

The different ideological positions between FijiFirst and SODELPA were major subjects of political contestation. SODELPA’s vision of land, Great Council of Chiefs, identity and the secular state was on the protectionist, ethno-nationalistic and conservative end of the continuum while Fiji- First was more towards the reformist, modernisation and multi-ethnic side. Both parties used psychological coercion in the form of private and public fear-mongering. Rumours, conspiracy theories and hate stories were circulated widely by some parties using blog-sites, social networks and other conceivable means of modern and traditional communication. This created a lot of tension and negative energy which thankfully slowly withered away after the election.

The stark demarcation provided voters with a clear choice. Indo-Fijians and minority groups found the FijiFirst’s position more trans-ethnically embracing and in favour of their long – term security in Fiji compared to the ethnically exclusive SODELPA position.

For the iTaukei , the choice was between either SODELPA’s cultural preservation or FijiFirst’s cultural tra-nsformation and socio-economic modernisation. The patterns of iTaukei support for both parties were apparent. SODELPA had massive support in the eastern division polling stations in Lau, Kadavu and Lomaiviti as well as in Cakaudrove and Bua while FijiFirst performed well in Vitilevu, especially in Nadroga, Nadi, Ba, Serua, Ra, Naitasiri and Tailevu. For instance, Cuvu, Nadroga’s ‘capital,’ was overwhelmingly FijiFirst, despite the close traditional links between Cuvu and the SODELPA leader.

In Tailevu, home of the FijiFirst leader, the tussle was quite even but SODELPA had dominance in Rewa, home of SODELPA leader.

Data from polling stations in urban areas such as Lami, Kinoya, Nausori, Nasinu, Raiwaqa, Nabua, USP, FNU, Suva Civic Centre, amongst others, showed that FijiFirst had unsurpassed support. It appeared that support for SODELPA was strong amongst the more traditional and conservative members of the rural iTaukei community while support for FijiFirst was prominent amongst the more urban and also those who had direct benefit from the government’s development projects. Development didn’t always work as party loyalty payoff. For instance, although a large number of development projects in the form of roads and mining had taken place in Bua, FijiFirst still performed very badly in many Bua polling stations. In a Kadavu polling station, despite the provision of solar electricity to the villages concerned, only two voted for FijiFirst out of a total of 77 voters.

The NFP and minority parties

The rejuvenated National Federation Party (NFP), like the other minority parties, was overshadowed by the two giants, FijiFirst and SODELPA. Its attempt to become a multiracial and nationally appealing non-ethnic party did not resonate well with many Indo-Fijian voters, the traditional supporters. NFP was hoping to capture the Indo-Fijian exodus from the Fiji Labour Party but failed as they marched right past towards the FijiFirst camp.

As a result of the 1987 and 2000 coups, Indo-Fijians have been yearning for security and stability and they saw the FijiFirst as the only party capable of providing these, not NFP or FLP. Although the NFP attracted a lot of potential Indo-Fijian voters during the campaign, in the last two weeks before the election when the media popularity polls showed a sudden drop in Bainimarama’s poll rating, there was anxiety which spawned a massive drift towards FijiFirst by Indo-Fijian voters who feared a defeat for FijiFirst could also mean uncertainty for their future.

In addition many were also attracted towards FijiFirst’s multiracial appeal and development initiatives.

The loss of the FLP’s traditional cane-belt support and the leadership crisis now marks the end of a once vibrant party. The breakaway party, the Fiji Trade Union Congress (FTUC)- sanctioned People’s Democratic Party (PDP) had high hopes and expectations but failed to attract the workers’ votes, many of whom voted for FijiFirst as shown by a detailed examination of the polling station votes.

For instance, at the Denarau Island polling station where a large number of hotel workers voted, FijiFirst polled the most.

The FijiFirst manifesto which promised free electricity, free water and 99 year lease for squatters together with provision of other goodies such as free education and infrastructure appealed very well to urban workers.

The minority parties such as NFP, FLP, PDP, One Fiji and Fiji United Freedom Party, together with the other two independent candidates as a group could have gained about 13 per cent of the votes or seven seats if they had formed a pre-election coalition. As it turned out, NFP won only three seats and the rest of the parties and independents wasted their votes and squandered four seats. Perhaps this is a lesson for minor parties in the next election.

The future

There are valuable lessons to be learnt by political parties from the 2014 election. SODELPA needs strategic re-thinking and FijiFirst should not be complacent because of their big majority since people’s thinking and choices will continue to change in unpredictable ways. The small parties need to start thinking of a grand coalition, perhaps with SODELPA,to ensure that they don’t waste votes, to widen their appeal and give FijiFirst a good electoral tussle in 2018.

Meanwhile, the picture of the new parliamentarians posing in front of the Parliament house symbolises our new democracy, new hope, new identity and new spirit as a nation, as we optimistically embark on a new journey towards the future. Let’s keep this symbol alive and unblemished.

-Dr Steve Ratuva, a political sociologist at the University of Auckland, has recently been appointed professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology and Director of the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Research at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. He was the election expert analyst for Fiji TV and other international media during the Fiji election.


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