In this paper former Prime Minister and Labour Leader Mahendra Chaudhry
argues the need for Fiji’s badly splintered opposition to fight the 2022 general
elections as a united front to salvage the nation from the mess its current
leaders have created. The chances of a change in government in 2022 would
be much better were we to cooperate with each other, he says.
There has been a growing cry from the people for the
Opposition parties to unite to fight the general elections to bring about a change in government.
The past several years have inflicted untold misery and suffering on the nation, made even worse by the Covid crisis. Thousands of families were deprived of their normal source of income as unemployment rose and lockdowns caused the closure of businesses, small and big.
The crisis underscored the failure of a government that had over the last fifteen years driven the nation to disaster through economic mismanagement and bad governance. People saw relief only through a change of government in 2022.
They hoped for a united opposition of experienced, talented men and women who could rescue the nation and put it back on a solid footing. For this to happen, the opposition had to unite to pool its resources and talents.
In response to this call, three opposition political parties announced a co-operation agreement two weeks ago as a first step to forming a united front to contest the 2022 general elections.
A media statement issued by the leaders of the three parties – Mahendra Chaudhry (Labour), Savenaca Narube (Unity Fiji) and Jagath Karunaratne (Freedom Alliance) – stated that a co-ordinating centre will be set up “to spearhead the work of persuading the other three opposition parties to join hands.
“We are confident that this initiative will motivate the other Opposition parties to rally together for the sake of our children and grandchildren,” the leaders said.
It is important to clarify that there is no coalition at this stage. It is an understanding to promote the work to unite the opposition parties for the 2022 general elections.
The compelling reason here is the need to change the government if we are to rescue the nation from further ruin under the Fiji First.
The three Leaders agree that “… the best, and only guarantee for a change in 2022, is if all the Opposition parties join hands to fight together”.
The opposition is badly fractured into six different parties with all of them vying to get maximum votes. This will mean competing amongst themselves for the anti-Fiji First votes.
The chances of a change in government in 2022 would be much better were we to cooperate with each other.
However, this could be jeopardised unless the remaining three parties – Sodelpa, NFP and the People’s Alliance – can be persuaded to join.
We all have a vision for the nation. That vision requires making sacrifices to unseat the incumbent government.
But instead of being supported on this altruistic mission, we have been shrugged off. The NFP wrote us off as small parties and vote spoilers. Another so-called political analyst who I believe was on the Fiji First government’s payroll before being given the boot, has described us as “an alliance of wannabies and has-beens”. Wow!
Lessons from history
Those who so arrogantly write us off “as small parties with no hope of winning an election” may well remember the maxim that: nothing is permanent in politics. Politics is the art of the possible.
One may recall the 1999 general elections when against all odds, the Fiji Labour Party, ‘small party’ with only 7 seats in Parliament at the time, swept through the elections with an overwhelming majority completely annihilating the National Federation Party which at the time carried 20 Indian communal seats. The media, the popular polls, no one had given the FLP a hope in hell.
Labour had, of course, done the same thing in 1987. A fledgling party, with less than two years in the political arena, it had overcome the 17-year perch on power of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara’s Alliance Party, giving Fiji its first Labour Prime Minister in Dr. Timoci Bavadra.
Also within memory, is the 2016 US presidential elections when Donald Trump defied all pre-election polls to sweep into the White House, thrashing Hillary Clinton to the surprise of America. A stunned US is still working out what went wrong for Hillary.
History has shown repeatedly that in a national election, it is not wise to write off the element of unpredictability.
Labour has risen from the ashes after two devastating coups – in 1987 and 2000 – despite being written off by political pundits. ‘Keep calm and carry on’ is our motto.
We have done it twice; we can do it a third time.
The concept of a united opposition has turned out to be something of a pipe dream since the 2014 elections. The people want us to unite but political leaders have been reluctant to do so, putting their own agenda ahead of the national interest.
Strong moves made prior to the 2014 polls to unite the opposition under the banner of a United Front for a Democratic Fiji (UFDF) failed when two of the parties withdrew at the eleventh hour.
Similarly the run up to the 2018 elections, saw several futile attempts at uniting opposition parties, all of which petered out in the end because some leaders were entertaining, albeit unsuccessfully, the notion of holding the ‘balance of power’ in a hung parliament.
The case for unity
Those opposed to a pre-election united opposition, argue that the opposition should ‘work smart’ and prepare for a post-election coalition to form a government.
This is all very well – but what else could be smarter than working together?
Post-election coalitions are dictated by necessity in a situation where no one party has the numbers to form a government. This is a very likely scenario under the proportional representation voting system that Fiji has adopted. So there’s nothing smart or new about it.
On the other hand, there are numerous benefits to working as a united front.
The rigid laws and constraints under which the opposition in Fiji is forced to go to the polls, make it much smarter to unite pre-poll so that we can pool our resources and limited manpower.
Firstly, no single opposition party is likely to collect the huge funds that is at the disposal of Fiji First which has collected some $7m since 2014. Even united, we may never be able to pool together anywhere near this amount to fight the elections.
Under the Political Parties Act it was always difficult for the opposition to raise funds. New laws enacted this year have placed even greater constraints, and imposed more rigid scrutiny, on opposition campaign funding.
All this under an Elections Office that, I believe, is and always has been, pretty hostile to the Opposition. One has to be naïve not to admit that the entire electoral machinery is stacked against the Opposition. Working together may place us in a better position to provide a stronger scrutiny of the various electoral processes.
With over 1400 polling stations spread over a huge geographical area, it will be impossible for any one opposition party, no matter how big, to man these stations adequately. Getting together will allow us to pool manpower to adequately monitor the voting and counting processes to guard against any possible fraud.
Opposition parties will need to be very much on the alert to the kind of malpractices that were noticed in the past.
That is the only way to ensure that the 2022 polls are free and fair. It makes sense to take all necessary precautions to prevent electoral misdemeanor rather than protest afterwards.
Finally, as a united opposition, we can put forward a top line up of 55 talented and experienced candidates best qualified to rescue the nation from the mess Fiji First has created. This will increase the confidence of the voters that we can govern in their interest.