Saturday 02 Jul 2022 | 18:43 | SYDNEY
Saturday 02 Jul 2022 | 18:43 | SYDNEY

Fiji: Should we believe in promises?


Jenny Hayward-Jones


29 November 2011 10:45

Fiji's government delivered its 2012 budget last week. In his budget address, Commodore Frank Bainimarama promised that his government would start work on a new constitution no later than September 2012. He also announced $5.9 million in the budget for electronic voter registration— 'as a demonstration' of his 'commitment towards elections'.

Our Fiji Poll indicated a slight majority of Fiji citizens believed the government was doing a very good or fairly good job preparing to draft a new constitution (53%) and making progress towards elections (52%). That was before the government made any concrete announcements about resources being devoted to these tasks.

Whether Bainimarama was trying to convince the more than 40% who thought he was only doing an average or poor job with preparations or was trying to send a signal to the international community, the announcement is the first real indication that there might be some thinking in the government about making good or appearing to make good on its promises. Fiji's government had previously advertised a tender for the provision of an electronic voter registration (EVR) system.

Now, a tender advertisement and the announcement of a budget do not in themselves mean the Fiji Government is serious about holding elections in 2014; voter registration alone does not guarantee there will be elections. But it's a necessary first technical step and should not be dismissed. 

The quality of voter registration has been an issue in Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, so Fiji has to get this first step right if it is to persuade the international community it is serious about 2014. The features of the EVR system envisioned in the tender document may be ambitious for a developing country but if a high-quality registration system can be established in Fiji, that should be a positive development.

The tender document says voter registration will commence on 1 January 2012 (that's only a few weeks away) and be completed by 30 June 2012. It also indicates that the Fiji Government is following through on an earlier promise to lower the voting age from 21 to 18. This means Fiji citizens who are currently 15 years old and have lived under a military dictatorship since they were ten years old may be voting for the first time in 2014.

Fiji does not have the same youth bulge as the rest of Melanesia. According to the 2007 census, those aged between 10 and 19 years made up 19% of the population — not enough, perhaps, to determine the eventual result but a significant proportion with no real memory of democratic government.

I'm no expert in electronic voter registration but I'm guessing that providers of this kind of technology would derive from democratic countries and would probably have some connection with democratic governments, having provided a similar service to them.

Donors would have preferred to have been asked to assist with voter registration and therefore gain greater confidence that Fiji was serious about election preparations. But the capacity of the Fiji government to fund this activity itself and to seek international expertise from democratic countries in establishing it should be welcomed, however cautiously, by those putting pressure on Fiji. 

Donors who want to influence Fiji need to stay engaged and keep offering assistance with future election preparations. The Fiji government is unlikely to accept future assistance from countries which condemn this first step but might be inclined to be open to those who indicate they are interested in the process.