Democracy in Fiji under question

  • 21st June 2018
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Fiji today is not a genuine democracy and falls way short of ensuring the democratic principles that the Party upholds. Most seriously, the imposed 2013 constitution is undemocratic and fundamentally flawed as the supreme law of the land, says Labour Leader Mahendra Chaudhry

The most common meaning of democracy is government of the people, by the people, for the people – a system of government in which power is vested with the people through their elected representatives.

To Labour, the wider concept of democracy embodies the principles enshrined in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and all the freedoms and rights provided therein. Other significant international instruments which uphold fundamental principles of democracy are the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and ILO Conventions 88 and 98 which ensure workers and trade union rights and the principle of collective bargaining.

Fiji Labour Party was founded on the principles of democratic socialism  advocating a welfare state which allows the State to intervene to ensure social justice and equity within a liberal democratic and capitalist framework.

Over the past 32 years of its existence Labour has remained steadfastly committed to its founding principles of democratic socialism. In terms of governance and party policies these mean:

  • recognition and protection of the fundamental political and civil rights of citizens, including free and fair elections, freedom of expression and a just and independent legal system
  • elimination of discrimination and exploitation on the grounds of class, race, sex, religion, age and political affiliation
  • abolition of poverty and achievement of an equitable distribution of income, wealth and opportunities
  • provision and maintenance of full and meaningful employment
  • redistribution of political and economic power so that all members of society have the opportunity to participate in the institutions and processes which determine their lives
  • proper management of Fiji’s resources, and protection of the environment
  • maintenance, creation and support for a competitive non-monopolistic private sector
  • encouragement and support for local small-scale businesses, farming and co-operative ventures
  • fostering a national identity for our people
  • recognition and encouragement of the right of labour to organise for the protection and advancement of its objectives

Fiji not a true democracy

Measured against such a yardstick, Labour believes that Fiji today is not a genuine democracy and falls way short of ensuring the democratic principles that the Party upholds.

A flawed Constitution

Most seriously, the imposed 2013 constitution is undemocratic and fundamentally flawed as the supreme law of the land. Unlike the 1997 Constitution, it does not reflect the will of the people and does not contain any significant input from the public at large.

Civil, political, human and trade union rights embodied in the Bill of Rights are effectively derogated with the continued enforcement of draconian decrees in force since 2009 which violate core international conventions and instruments on human rights.

The ban on trade unions officials from contesting elections under Section 57 (f) of the 2013 Constitution is undemocratic and in violation of their rights under the ICCPR.

The constitution does not observe the doctrine of separation of powers between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary and vests wide powers in the Prime Minister and Attorney General to the exclusion of checks and balances against abuse of such powers.

The jurisdiction and independence of the judiciary are circumscribed under the Constitution. It lacks provisions requiring accountability and transparency in the affairs of the State – two basic pillars of good governance.

Moreover, the Constitution flouts the rule of law in protecting criminals by granting immunity to perpetrators of the Fiji coups. While on the one hand it protects those who had committed the heinous crime of treason, political opponents are denied their fundamental rights for various questionable reasons. It was clearly tailored to suit the agenda and purpose of those who wrote it.

It should be noted that the Working Committee of the UN Human Rights Council in 2015 made a number of  recommendations to address these issues, among them the call for the establishment of a Constitutional Commission to conduct  a comprehensive review of the 2013 Constitution to ensure that it “reflects the will and aspirations of the people of Fiji”.

Free and Fair Elections

Free, fair and credible elections, crucial to a democratic society, cannot be held under this Constitution because the Electoral Commission and the Supervisor of Elections continue to be beholden to the Attorney General who is also Minister for Elections and general secretary of the ruling Fiji First Party, and are therefore, not independent as required under democratic norms.

This was one of the major issues raised by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein who following a visit to Fiji in February this year, questioned whether the Fiji Elections Office was truly autonomous as a supposedly-independent institution.

I am concerned about a basic structural flaw that bring into question whether these bodies are truly autonomous,” he said, referring also to the Constitutional Offices Commission and the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Commission.

Several provisions of the 2013 Electoral Decree and regulations governing elections, undermine the conduct of free, fair and credible elections in Fiji. Regretably, key recommendations to address these concerns by the Multinational Observer Group and the Electoral Commission in their 2014 annual reports, as well opposition political parties, have been ignored by the Electoral Commission and the government despite constant pressure from opposition parties.

The UN Human Rights Commissioner noted that it was “critical” to ensure an “environment conducive to a participatory process” as Fiji prepared for general elections.

Unless these concerns are addressed, opposition parties are not confident that the 2018 general elections will be free, fair and credible.

Media Rights and freedoms

A free and independent media is one of the most intrinsic signs of a truly democratic society. Media rights in Fiji have been under assault since the abrogation of the 1997 Constitution in April 2009 and the imposition of the Public Emergency Regulations (PER) that followed.

While the rigid censorship imposed under the PER have been lifted, media organisations continue to operate under highly cautious self-regulation, subject to draconian legislation under the  Media Industry Development (Amendment) Act  which carry fines of up to $100,000.

Journalists are punishable by a fine of $1000  and/or jail terms of up to two years should they be deemed to go against “the public interest or public order”.

UN High Commissioner Al Hussein found curbs on media freedom “highly worrying”, adding it “inhibited investigative journalism and coverage of issues that are deemed sensitive, as well as discouraging a plurality of views”.

Parliamentary Rights and Privileges

Parliamentary democracy as practiced in Fiji since the 2014 general elections, has been seriously compromised and undermined by repeated amendments to Standing Orders which have gagged free debate on issues of national importance, greatly reduced parliamentary sitting times and seriously curtailed the right of the  Opposition to hold government accountable and transparent.

Controversial rulings by the Speaker including the suspension of several members of the Opposition, have brought into question her impartiality and independence. Consequently, parliament has been effectively reduced to a one-party institution.

Human, Trade Union and Workers Rights

Government’s violation of human rights, in particular incidences of violent assault on prisoners and people in remand, has brought considerable disrepute to the country.

The sanctity of  trade union and workers rights as guaranteed under international conventions and instruments, is another important pre-requisite for a truly democratic society.

n Fiji, these rights have come under serious assault since 2009 and, despite the agreement reached between FTUC and the government under the aegis of the ILO in 2015, they continue to be violated.

Recent examples have been the withdrawal of the right to collective bargaining of   public service workers and the imposition of short term individual contracts. Furthermore, trade unions organisations have been denied the right to mount public protests against such impositions.

Government’s refusal to establish a fair and realistic national minimum wage that takes into account basic poverty needs, is a denial of social justice to the workers. Considering that poor wages is the root cause of poverty in Fiji, with some 60%  believed to be paid below poverty line wages, the denial of a fair wage spawns greater poverty and the associated social ills of families in the low income bracket.

Social and economic empowerment of our people, both in rural and urban areas,   will only come through the restoration of a more truly democratic society.