Fiji Goes to the Polls

Trucks at a sugar processing plant in Fiji in 2011. The sugar industry is a major contributor to Fiji's gross domestic product, foreign exchange earnings and employment. (Photo: Asian Development Bank)

Fiji goes to the polls on Sept. 17 for its first democratic election since the government of former Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase was deposed in a bloodless coup on Dec. 6, 2006 by the Republic of Fiji Military Forces. The election will be held under Fiji's 2013 Constitution, which requires election of a single chamber parliament of 50 under a proportional voting system. Associated with the constitution is the new Electoral Decree 2014, which provides information on the conduct of elections and the role of the supervisor of elections in managing the election process. Seven approved political parties are contesting in the election, including FijiFirst, Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA), Peoples' Democratic Party (PDP), National Federation Party (NFP), Fiji Labour Party (FLP), One Fiji and Fiji United Freedom Party.

The FijiFirst party is led by Rear Admiral Voreqe Bainimarama, who has been prime minister of Fiji since the military coup in December 2006. Following the coup, Fiji was suspended from the Pacific Islands Forum for not progressing with elections under the 1997 Constitution in 2009. Fiji, in response, conducted its own regional meetings called "Engaging with the Pacific." Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the European Union and the United States imposed smart sanctions against members of the Bainimarama regime, and diplomatic tensions deepened after Fiji sought closer cooperation with China, India and Russia.

FijiFirst party has modelled the party along the Peoples' Charter, which influenced the 2013 Fiji Constitution. FijiFirst has called for a separation of state and religion, a common name of "Fijian" for all Fiji citizens, allocation of state resources based on community needs, fair leases, a land bank, anti-corruption measures via the Fiji Independent Commission Against Corruption, a strategy to reduce violence against women, affordable housing, a national employment scheme, an infrastructure plan, agri-business diversification, reducing bureaucratic red tape, modernizing legal frameworks, encouraging women in the workplace, lowering youth unemployment, toughness on sacrilege and other criminal acts, free water, reasonable rates for electricity and gas, fee-free education, investment in higher education, and equal citizenry.

The Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA) is led by Rewa chief Ro Teimumu Kepa, and support for her campaign is provided by former Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase. SODELPA has criticized "Fijian" as a common name, wants Fiji to be a Christian state, and intends to change lease money distribution, bring back the Great Council of Chiefs, reinstate the Fijian Affairs Board scholarship, restructure the iTaukei Land Trust Board, explore the possibility of bringing back the 1997 Constitution, reform the Republic of Fiji Military Forces, enforce Indigenous Fijian foreshore rights, review all decrees since the 2006 coup, and implement social justice and affirmative action programs for indigenous Fijians.

The Fiji Labour Party, the Peoples' Democratic Party and the National Federation Party support the reinstatement of the Great Council of Chiefs but have criticised SODELPA for their stand on a Christian state. The Fiji Labour Party is led by former Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, who was disqualified from standing in the September 2014 election due to his conviction for breaching foreign exchange laws. The party continues to campaign for the rights of workers and farmers. However, the Peoples' Democratic Party also has workers' rights as part of its manifesto. Led by a former Fiji Labour Party member and unionist, Felix Anthony, the Peoples' Democratic Party has criticized the Essential Industries Decree that has diminished the rights of workers in specific industries such as tourism, infrastructure and emergency services.

The National Federation Party is led by Professor Biman Prasad, who resigned from the University of the South Pacific to lead the party. The National Federation Party has vowed to reduce value-added tax and address poverty, unemployment and inflation. The party has also called for 99-year leases so that there is some certainty on agricultural leases.

The election campaign has been an interesting one. FijiFirst leader Voreqe Bainimarama visited New Zealand and Australia to sell his vision for Fiji to a large number of Fiji citizens resident in those countries. Most of the discussion of party candidates and policies are conducted on social media sites. On some blog sites, highly charged racial comments have led political parties to caution its supporters from stirring emotions. Race-based issues have dominated past elections, but the September 2014 election is designed in a way to force political parties to address national issues as part of its political manifesto. The Fiji election will be monitored by an international observer group, and all parties have agreed to accept the outcome of the election.

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