Countdown to the Campaign Period
by Seni Nabou, NFP General Secretary
Opinion piece published in the Fiji Times on:
Saturday 16th April 2022
At the risk of being labelled blasphemic and non-reflective on this sacred weekend of resurrection, but with 10 days (from today) before the official campaign period kicks in on 26 April ending on the campaign blackout period 48 hours before the main polling day, it is critical to be well-informed and prepared in advance.
Equal "black out"
A previous point of unresolved contention on the blackout period, that we have raised with the Elections Office from the 2018 elections, is the unequal voting atmosphere between those who undergo pre-poll voting or postal voting, and those who undergo main polling day voting.
The approximately 60,000+ who pre-poll vote quite possibly walk into their polling stations with online and offline political radio/TV ads and signage fresh on their minds because the 48-hour campaign blackout period does not apply to them, or to local and/or overseas postal voters.
In stark contrast, the strict campaign blackout period applies to the vast majority voting on the main polling day.
More pressingly the following question arises: does the unequal application of the campaign blackout period impact low voter turnout, especially if online and offline news and fake news monopolizing the pre-poll voting period, engenders distrust of the elections process?
Political parties (should) know the rules and we know this amendment in section 109A of the Electoral Act, extends the official campaign period beyond the date when the Writ has been issued, which ordinarily was our starting point. However, we will be watching keenly to see how these rules are applied this time around.
Women at a recent workshop convened by the Fiji Woman’s Forum were advised by the Elections Office that the Electoral Commission would be providing further guidance on the campaign period, closer to 26 April.
Similarly, we were also advised that while the green voter cards had expired, the Elections Office by law could not stop anyone from voting because registered voters only register once. Candidates standing for elections however, must have an updated voter ID card.
"Do's" and "Do NOT Do's"
The campaign rules that apply during the campaign period are as manifold as they are complex.
The main one is of course, section 144A of the Electoral Act that prohibits any person or political party from making public false statements "likely to influence the outcome of an election or diminish public confidence in the performance of any duty or function of the Supervisor and the Electoral Commission."
Similarly, in the Electoral Act, since the new section 109A allows for this earlier campaign period rule, sections 110 right through to 118 all lay down the rules for the campaign period environment.
Political parties like ours are already gasping at the likely spike in campaign costs to be sustained from 26 April until the blackout period (whenever that may be), for political ad spots on TV, radio and print media, signage, printing, social media, etc much earlier in the campaign period.
At this juncture it is very appropriate to put in a plug for political donations. This is the time for voters to contribute to your preferred candidate (especially female candidates please!) and/or political party to help them campaign impactfully. Every dollar and cent helps. Your candidate or party should be able to detail to you the strict laws about financial contributions, to keep themselves and donors clear from breaches in the laws. The best rule of thumb for donors, is to ensure you get a receipt even if it’s only for 5 cents.
Sections 110 to 118 concerning the campaign period regulates restrictions on opinion polls; non-interference in campaign; campaign materials; prohibition on state resources to campaign; prohibition on vote buying; restrictions on campaigns (for foreign governments, NGOs, IGOs or multilateral agencies); campaign rules; paid campaign ads; and media restrictions (during blackout).
In addition, there are also electoral offences in the Electoral Act regulated from sections 135 to 152, that apply to campaigns.
Section 152 makes it crystal clear who these rules bind: political parties (including party officials, agent, campaigners, “servants” of party, and proposed candidates); companies; NGOs; and the media.
Electoral offences include: bribery (s140); undue influence (s141); heading to electoral advertisements (s143); printing and publishing of electoral advertisements, notices, rtc (s144); publication of false statements (s144A); campaign prohibited during poll (s146); offences related to campaign (s150).
Underlying all these rules is the Code of Conduct for Political Parties, contained in Schedule 1 of the "Political Parties (Registration, Conduct, Funding and Disclosures)" Act.
At the heart of the code of conduct is the following:
6. A political party shall not—
(a) engage in or encourage violence by its members or supporters;
(b) engage in influence peddling, bribery or any other form of corruption;
(c) accept or use illicit or illegal money;
(d) accept or use public resources other than those allocated to the political party; and
(e) advocate hatred that constitutes ethnic or religious incitement or vilification of others or any other communal antagonism.
Unfair Campaign Practices
It is almost comical how an aggressively toxic fake news blitz on social media has spread online like the covid-19 pandemic, especially since the signing of an Memorandum of Understanding between NFP and the People’s Alliance.
But even the online trolls (should) know that come 26 April, when we're in the official campaign period, the Elections Office and the Electoral Commission -- especially with their oversight and redress powers, will be called upon.
It's noteworthy that while the Elections Office has confirmed their relationship with Meta (Facebook), whereby they were able to take down fake news about Kadavu and Taiwan during the 2018 campaign period, there is sure to be advanced vigilance from all quarters on these fake personalities, whose online footprints breadcrumb them to other notorious offline personalities, that may even overshadow the campaign efforts of their political masters.
Just recently, NFP witnessed a crass and infantile offline and online media ambush attempt by Radio Tarana in New Zealand, where Hon Prof Biman was ambushed in a live radio interview, such that he felt his only honourable option to take, was to exit a blatant blindside attack, from a New Zealand regulated media organisation, purporting to be free and impartial.
To worsen matters related to this incident, the notorious "Posiano Ruveni" Facebook personality with his public political leanings, posts up an alleged email (leaked?) from a Sanjesh Narain a Radio Tarana Network Editor, to the Prime Minister's personal email account, with the subject matter titled "Biman", and a brief account on what transpired during Hon Prof Biman's interview!
The alleged message from "Sanjesh" to email account "firstname.lastname@example.org", which is also the email account that the Parliament secretariat uses from time to time, to disseminate parliamentary updates to, says:
"He walked out of the interview when we asked him on his plans for Fiji. He had no answer and walked out saying I'm leaving."
In the first instance, if this email is true, why does Radio Tarana feel comfortably obliged to update one Party Leader of one political party, about their interview with another Party Leader from another political party?
Was it a botched stitch-up and ambush, breadcrumbing offline and online sorts between Fiji and New Zealand?
If this sorry saga is true, it is a damning indictment on a Party Leader of the ruling party, who under the Code of Conduct for Political Parties, should be the first to exemplify these standards.
While we gear up for the official campaign period, it is appropriate that we continue to ensure that we do what we can to help strengthen the electoral process, so that as many voters as possible make their intentions, on who is worthy of governing them, known by voting.
It is not simply a matter for political parties and electoral regulators.
Third party observers also add validity to the process, and it is long past time that the Minister responsible for Elections who is also the General Secretary of the ruling party, gives meaning to section 119 of the Electoral Act and allow more "Fijian made" domestic observers like our NGOs to help keep watch, based on a fair and negotiated Terms of Reference.
It is no longer about differences of opinions with NGOs. We all have divergent views at the best of times, but the credibility of the electoral process that on all fronts is intentional about reversing the low voter turnout trends from the 2014 and 2018 elections, must reign paramount.