FIJI: ‘In a democracy, the power of the people doesn’t begin and end at the ballot box’

Abdul Mufeez ShaheedAs part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to Abdul Mufeez Shaheed, a youth activist from Fiji and a member of CIVICUS-Counterpart International’s Innovation for Change programme in the Pacific Youth Hub.

Elections will be held in Fiji on 14 November 2018. Over the last few years, the authorities have used restrictive legislation to stifle the media and curtail the rights to peaceful assembly and the freedom of expression for civil society, including trade unions. During a visit to Fiji in February 2018, then United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein stated that civil society groups faced a "narrow civic space and the suppression of dissenting voices".

What do you see as the key components of a functioning democracy, and how do you assess the quality of democracy in Fiji againt those standards?

Key components of democracy include people power, checks and balances, separation of powers, citizens’ rights and government accountability. A democracy is where the power of the people doesn’t begin and end at the ballot box. Inclusivity is key to any democracy. So are dissent and varied opinions. Respect for basic human rights is also important, including the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression. People should be able to protest in a non-violent manner, to strike and form movements and unions. The exercise of these freedoms ensures the checks and balances that are needed for a functioning democracy.

Fiji has a Bill of Rights enshrined in its Constitution. The 2013 Constitution has made some strides in ensuring these basic rights. Certain groups of people who used to face discrimination are now protected by anti-discrimination laws. Of concern, however, is the equally long list of limitations that came with the Bill of Rights. For instance, the public cannot assemble and protest without a police permit, and there have been instances when permits to hold a march or a rally have been denied on the grounds of national security. The problem is that the Constitution allows rights to be limited in the interest of national security, public safety and public order. While there are generally no restrictions against joining civil society organisations (CSOs), the government has a lot of power to regulate trade unions, strikes and lockouts in the interest of the economy. Recently, unions in Fiji - which have been a strong voice for workers’ rights - feel their collective bargaining power is being threatened and powers weakened with government moves to introduce individual, fixed-term contracts for civil servants, including teachers, rather than through a collective bargaining agreement.

Additionally, new legislation that regulates social media, such as the Online Safety Bill to “deter harmful online behaviour,” gives cause for concern. CSOs had raised strong reservations about the bill, including about the Bill’s lack of guiding principles to define and determine the scope of powers and discretion of the Commission when receiving, assessing and investigating complaints. While it has yet to be tested in courts, only time can tell how it will impact on free speech online. Another problem is the failure of the government to consult relevant bodies such as trade unions and associations when making policy decisions, including on contracts for civil servants.

What are your views on the upcoming election in Fiji? Do you think it will be free and fair?

Fiji’s system of government is parliamentary, so the upcoming general election will be held to fill the 51 seats of Parliament. Members of Parliament are elected in a single national district with open list proportional representation. The election will be carried out under the Electoral Act. A Multinational Observation Group (MOG), including representatives from Australia, India and Indonesia, will monitor the work of the Fiji Elections Office (FEO) in administering the electoral process. For the moment, everything seems to be in order. The previous election, held in 2014, was deemed by the MOG as free, fair and reflective of the will of the Fijian people.

The current electoral climate, however, includes some worrying trends. While there have been efforts to remove communal voting in elections, it seems the mindset of some people and parties is still ethnically and racially motivated. Time and again, there have been comments made by politicians that are racially motivated.

There is lots of engagement from people on social media about the elections which has come to play a big role in information sharing and allowing people to engage with official profiles of parties. However, as election day comes closer, with less than one week before polls, social media has become rife with anonymous accounts that have taken to spreading false information.

Is civil society working to promote democratic practices and human rights around the elections?

There has been lots of voter education carried out by CSOs, often in partnership with the FEO. However, CSOs are not allowed to have an active participation in the political-electoral processes. The Electoral Act prevents foreign-funded CSOs from engaging in election-related campaigns and vests the power of voter education in the Supervisor of Elections. Heavy fines of up to FJD$50,000 (approximately US$23,000) can be imposed on those breaching the Electoral Act, along with prison sentences of up to 10 years. Therefore, when CSOs such as women’s groups hold sessions on elections and women’s participation they often invite the FEO to participate so as not to breach the law.

Civil society has also organised various events to get the population up to speed with the current election processes. Women’s groups have released a women’s manifesto that states what they want from political parties. The Citizen’s Constitutional Forum, a CSO, has undertaken research on a ‘State of the Youth’ report regarding elections. Local civil society has also sought engagement with stakeholders such as international CSOs.

What are your hopes and fears regarding the government that will be elected, and what do you think its key priorities should be?

There are seve political parties running in the 2018 elections with differing opinions on a wide range of issues. These include the independence of the FEO and the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Commission, media regulations, minimum wages, indigenous issues, education scholarship conditions, land property issues, military spending, pay and allowances for Members of Parliament and whether VAT should be paid on basic necessities, among other things.

What support does Fiji civil society need from the international community and international CSOs to help build greater respect for human rights and democratic freedoms in Fiji?

There needs to be a concerted effort by international CSOs to speak out when local CSOs in Fiji raise issues of democratic freedoms and human rights. There are freedoms as well as limitations to what CSOs can achieve and if we come with a collective mindset that Fiji’s issues are everybody’s issues, we may see some progress.

Civic space in Fiji is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor

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