A case study from the 2014 Human Rights and Democracy Report.
On 17 September 2014, Fiji went to the polls for the first time since 2006 – an important step in returning the country to democracy after eight years of rule by an unelected military-led government.
In the lead-up to the election, 591,000 people were registered to vote (93% of the eligible population). The Fiji Elections Office ran a nationwide voter education campaign.
Although some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were able to contribute to voter education, most were prevented from playing a meaningful role by a provision in the Electoral Decree that prevented NGOs in receipt of foreign funding from conducting election-related activities. With stiff penalties existing for breaching the decree, including large fines, and a maximum 10-year prison sentence, the decree restricted civil society’s participation in voter education.
Fiji received considerable outside support to run the election, including from Australia, the UK and EU. The UK’s primary human rights objective in 2014 was to provide targeted support to restore democracy. We funded the development of an Information Management System for tabulating the election results, training for police officers on their roles and responsibilities during the election, and a three-day seminar for media professionals on parliamentary reporting, with the UN Development Programme. The Welsh National Assembly and Scottish Parliament also provided advice on infrastructure requirements for the new parliament.
On polling day, a turnout of 84% was recorded. Anyone under 26 was voting for the first time in their life. 248 candidates, representing five political parties and two independents, contested 50 seats in the single constituency election. A Multinational Observer Group (MOG), co-led by Australia, Indonesia and India, observed the election at the invitation of the Fijian government. The MOG comprised 92 observers from 13 countries, including five UK observers, headed by Meg Munn MP. An EU team also participated.
The MOG declared the election had been conducted in “an atmosphere of calm, with an absence of electoral misconduct or evident intimidation, and was broadly representative of the will of the Fijian voters”.
Plans to form a domestic election observer mission were rejected by the Minister for Elections. The negative effect of restrictions placed upon civil society was particularly noted by the MOG. There was widespread media coverage, with 450 journalists covering the election. However, some local media, whilst reporting the views of all parties, remained biased towards the government. MOG observers noted that, “the regulatory framework for the election limited the media’s ability to rigorously examine the claims of candidate and parties”.
After his Fiji First party won a comfortable majority, Voreqe Bainimarama was sworn in as Prime Minister. Eight women were elected to parliament, with one becoming speaker. Although women only occupy 14% of seats, this is the highest proportion ever. Following the election, the Commonwealth and the Pacific Island Forum both lifted their suspensions on Fiji’s membership. The UK will focus future efforts in Fiji around strengthening democratic institutions, free speech, civil society, and human rights.