Fiji's election date set for September

MICHAEL FIELD
Last updated 12:52 31/03/2014
Frank Bainimarama
DAVID WHITE/Fairfax NZ
FRANK BAINIMARAMA: The island nation's leader has set an election date.
fiji election ballot
VOTING TIME: A sample ballot for Fiji's election shows the enormity of the task voters face.

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Fiji's military strongman has declared the name of his new political party - Fiji First - and set the date for his country's first elections in eight years.

But bizarrely the September 17 election will feature a single massive ballot paper that looks like a fiendishly complex Sudoku puzzle.

Newly promoted Rear Admiral Frank Bainimarama said his Fiji First party derived its name from his belief that Fiji is "where every Fijian regardless of religion, race, ethnicity, status, colour, gender and creed is considered equal - where every Fijian is put first in relation to our collective progress, success and growth as a nation".

Bainimarama seized power in a coup in 2006.

Voting in the new single chamber 50-seat Legislative Assembly is set to be a real puzzle.

The military regime, still governing the country, issued its Electoral Decree last week, in which there will be one national constituency to elect 50 MPs in a proportional system.

In practice it means each voter will be confronted with a massive ballot paper consisting of up to 280 squares, each numbered from 135 to 414. Each square will have a randomly selected number, candidate name and a photo.

Each voter will have to locate the candidate they want and circle, tick or cross.

The decree warns that anybody entering a polling booth with a written note telling them a number to vote for risks up to 10 years' jail.

The decree says each candidate will get their number by the drawing of balls of equal size and weight from a container that anybody present can rotate.

The balls will be drawn by a person "who is blindfolded and has been blindfolded prior to the rotation of the container".

Veteran Fiji former politician and academic Wadan Narsey described the new system as an "electoral nightmare".

The regime had ignored all recommendations from political parties and the public for "far more sensible, understandable, and workable proportional electoral systems", he said.

Jon Fraenkel, a professor of comparative politics at Victoria University, said in an Island Business  analysis that Fiji's new "open list" system means that the voter, not the party, determines the order of election of the candidates. Voters potentially get more control.

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"Voters may be confronted with a potentially huge ballot paper with hundreds of names on it," he wrote.

If Bainimarama personally got 40 per cent of the nationwide vote, his party would get 20 of the 50 seats. Those actually elected would be the 20 top polling candidates in Bainimarama's party.

In practice, that party would probably get more than 20 seats because some parties or independent candidates would fail to reach the 5 per cent threshold. Parties that do not pass the threshold do not get any seats.

Fiji's voting system has in the past been complicated by racial issues with special seats for indigenous Fijians, Indians, white and national constituencies.

They had first past the post between 1970 and 1997 and an even more complex alternative vote system between 1997 and 2006. The country also had four military coups in that time.

On social media the draft ballot paper has been greeted with derision. People say it will be hard to remember the number of their preferred candidate. Others have compared the paper with Sudoku or a lotto card.

One wag says "will tell mum to take her glasses" and another says they will need a magnifying glass.

"There will be a lot of confused older voters," one commented.

Meanwhile, New Zealand and Australia have moved to lift travel sanctions against Fiji's officials.

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully said the progress Fiji was making towards holding free and fair elections deserved recognition from the Pacific region and international community.

As a consequence New Zealand would end all remaining travel sanctions and would also remove all remaining restrictions on New Zealand Government departments working directly with their Fiji counterparts.

Australia's Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has lifted all travel restrictions applying to Bainimarama, his ministers, military personnel and family members.

The travel sanctions have been in place since December 2006.

"This decision is in line with the Australian Government's policy of re-engagement and normalisation of bilateral relations with Fiji," she said, noting "significant progress" toward elections.

"We are confident that lifting travel restrictions will lay a framework for closer dialogue and co-operation with Fiji on bilateral and regional issues."

- Fairfax Media

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