Fiji’s suffocating ‘democracy’

  • 10th July 2015
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FLP had warned well before last year’s general elections that nothing would change after the elections and that dictatorship will continue in the guise of (pseudo) democracy.

Labour Leader Mahendra Chaudhry speaking at the launch of FLP’s election campaign in Suva on 2nd August 2014 said: “Nothing will change after the elections… those who have taken away your rights and freedoms will not hand them back to you on a platter – election or no election.”

The statement was not made lightly. It had become obvious from the farcical nature of the constitution-making and electoral processes that they were specifically designed to keep the regime in power and preserve their authoritarian rule.

The truth of it can best be judged from observing how our parliamentary democracy has functioned since last October.

The first act of government after the September 2014 elections was to promulgate a decree giving Ministers and MPs huge pay increases – this even before Parliament was convened!

We then saw the adoption of Standing Orders of Parliament which seem to have been specially crafted to curtail debate, disallow questions and permit the manipulation of the parliamentary processes when it suited the government.

Under these Standing Orders, the Opposition has found itself ham strung and unable to expose instances of corruption, abuse of office or authority, and perversion of the cause of justice so prevalent in the post-coup Bainimarama administration.

In an unprecedented move, parliamentary questions are now vetted by the Business Committee of the House where questions likely to prove embarrassing to government or which may expose impropriety on their part, are disallowed. In all the years since independence, the Business Committee never dealt with questions, it being a matter only between the MP and the office of the Secretary-General.

The Budget Session last November was marred by the fact that, for the first time in parliament’s history, hard copies of the Budget Estimates were not available to the public – it is so even today. “No you can’t have it – only a limited number were printed solely for use by government departments,” people were told. They could not even access it on the website of the Finance Ministry.

This was obviously intended to restrict the flow of information to the public. Indeed, the Estimates itself was recast to limit disclosure.

Not surpisingly, the International Budget Partnership, a global organization that surveys and reports on Budget transparency of governments, has ranked Fiji a very poor 6 out of 100 in its most recent index assessment.

Next comes Prime Minister Bainimarama’s flag change initiative. Although a parliamentary committee is dealing with the issue, the PM has made it clear that he will force it despite the fact that over 80% of the people want to have a say in the matter. Public opinion so far expressed is overwhelmingly against any change but he is not moved. In a face-saving gesture, he has extended the time frame within which he intends to force the issue, moving it from June to December.

People have witnessed and commented on the manner in which the affairs of parliament are handled by the Speaker. She is perceived by many as leaning too much towards the government. The harsh penalty imposed on Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu has angered many who saw it more as an act by FF government intended to deprive the Opposition of a forthright and outspoken MP. We believe the score on this issue remains open.

Then there is the question of the right to freedom of assembly. It is plainly unacceptable in a democracy that elected MPs must obtain police permits to meet with their constituents. Never in the past was this a requirement. But under the amended Public Order Act, this has been brought in simply to keep track of the Opposition and to obstruct them where possible. Government MPs are quite free, on the other hand, to organize public consultation (campaign) meetings for which permits are not required and which are funded from the public purse.

The most recent, and shocking, abuse of power and derailment of democracy by the FF government is to restrict parliament sittings to just 4 weeks a year. It is nothing short of gagging parliament and was imposed despite strong cries from the Opposition. Attorney General Khaiyum justified it by saying: we need to be out there working for the people and not sitting here engaging in unnecessary debate.

The motion fixing the parliamentary calendar for 2016 was bulldozed through with utter contempt for well-established democratic traditions which recognize Parliaments as the people’s chamber where their representatives must be permitted full freedom to voice their concerns. This is simply not possible here, considering the restrictions now placed on parliamentary sittings.

The Budget session in November alone takes up three weeks. This leaves just one week for the rest of the year. One wonders if Khaiyum has thought through the absurdity of the situation he has created!

It is clearly not his desire to work for the people that is the driving force behind this psychotic imposition. Rather, it is Bainimarama and Khaiyum’s fear of being questioned and exposed for what is happening in government. Both seem to be uncomfortable in Parliament chambers exposed before the people – they can’t stand the scrutiny.

Indeed, Oliver Cromwell, recognized as the father of British parliamentary democracy, must be turning in his grave at Khaiyum’s attempts to curtail the power of the people’s Parliament.

The Opposition must seriously consider whether it can honestly discharge its duties and responsibilities to the people in such a suffocating political environment.

The people too must speak out and not be entrapped by this calculated plan to subjugate them.