Fiji to head to the polls in September

MICHAEL FIELD
Last updated 20:00 31/03/2014
Frank Bainimarama
DAVID WHITE/Fairfax NZ
FRANK BAINIMARAMA: The island nation's leader has set an election date.

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Military-ruled Fiji is heading to the polls after eight years, but with a ballot paper that looks like a fiendishly complex Sudoku puzzle.

An "open list" proportional representation election on September 17 is newly promoted Rear Admiral Frank Bainimarama's latest revolutionary bid to end racial politics in coup-plagued Fiji.

His new military electoral decree has also imposed strict controls on the media and even outlaws, under pain of a 10-year jail term, any voter taking written guides into a voting booth.

By setting a date for elections, both Australia and New Zealand have quickly rewarded him by lifting the smart sanctions that were imposed after the December 2006 military coup.

Bainimarama can now, if he wants, finally visit his family members who have remained in New Zealand since he was last here in the days before he staged his coup.

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully said Fiji was making progress toward free and fair elections with more than 500,000 people registered to vote.

"No-one is pretending the position in Fiji is perfect," he said.

"I think it's a significant step forward if we have got an election date established, a framework for elections, political parties registered," McCully said.

"The question is how do we best reinforce that progress and that's the judgment we've made."

His Australian counterpart, Julie Bishop, made a similar statement with Bainimarama welcoming both.

"The Fijian Government has always believed that the sanctions were ill-conceived and served only to discourage talented and qualified individuals from serving the Fijian people."

Bainimarama, who appears to enjoy strong public support in the limited opinion polls held recently, on Sunday launched his new party, Fiji First.

It 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".

But the new voting system, conceived by the military and private advisers, is complex and confusing.

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.

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The country also had four military coups in that time.

Under Bainimarama's new system voting will be for a single vote in a single national constituency for a new single chamber 50-seat Legislative Assembly.

Every 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".

The already frail media has been further nobbled in the electoral decree with tight rules over how they can report.

A new military-aligned body has been set up to monitor how the media perform during the elections.

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, says in an Island Business magazine 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.

"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.

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.

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

- Fairfax Media

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