THE RULES THAT BIND US
Elections Season is here.
by Seni Nabou, NFP General Secretary.
Opinion piece published in the Fiji Times on:
Saturday 26th March 2022
Now that the Electoral Commission has officially declared the official campaign period to start from 26 April, and end 48-hours prior to the main election day, it is probably timely that we examine the rules of the game, given that this official campaign period provision is a new addition in the amended laws.
Rather than run foul of a possible infringement violation of section 144A of the Electoral Act, it is my intention to provide an update on the rules, and what has been relayed to political parties, as part of our regular engagement with the Elections Office.
Section 144A 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."
So if you're wondering why the tone of this article is unusually bland, it is because getting FICAC-ed -- or facing a possible $50,000 fine or 5 years jail time, or both -- is not exactly a life-changing ambition for anyone to be achieving at this moment in time.
Two weeks after the campaign period kicks in, the Financial Management Act says that the Minister for Economy must "ensure that a pre-election economic and fiscal update prepared by the Ministry is published on an official government website."
In terms of the timing for all these money related updates coming up, the supplementary budget will (at the time of publication) already have been tabled on Thursday, 24 March. The next financial update will be a pre-election update, 14 days after 26 April when the campaign period comes into effect. Then, there is also supposed to be national budget in either June or July.
The Rules and The Realities
To put this opinion piece into perspective, it is fair to say that from 2014 until now, our engagement with the Elections Office has been combative at the best of times. But where there is a prevailing convergence right now, is the deep concern from all fronts, that 2 consecutive elections of lowering voter turnout numbers, must be improved.
We all know that the electoral laws should be better and fairer, but to change these laws, voters must send the right people into Parliament with a resounding majority and the mandate to ensure that their will, as a people, is respected and effected.
Bettering the Low Voter Turnout
Based on statistics from International IDEA, in 2014 there were 591,101 individuals registered to vote. There was an 84.6% voter turnout when 500,078 individuals of the total 591,101 people registered to vote in those elections, actually did cast their vote, to elect 50 Members of Parliament.
In 2018, there were 637,527 individuals registered to vote. There was a 71.92% voter turnout when 458,532 individuals of the total 637,527 people registered to vote in those elections, actually did cast their vote, to elect 51 Members of Parliament.
For these upcoming elections, voters will be selecting 55 Members of Parliament. The Elections Office advised political parties at a February briefing, that as at 31 December 2021 there were 664,481 registered voters and last Friday (18 March 2022), we were advised that they anticipate approximately a total of 660,000 to 670,000 registered voters to be participating at the upcoming elections.
Who Can Vote?
At present, the Elections Office is presently undergoing its intensive national voter registration campaign.
We are only too aware that it has not been without its share of challenges, but to be fair, the Elections Office has been attentive and flexible, whenever we raise issues of concern about registration logistics and processes.
According to section 19 of the Electoral (Registration of Voters) law, the national register of voters closes at the time that will be detailed in the Writ, and once that happens no other names can be registered until the next official registration period.
The first possible date that the Writ can be issued is Thursday, 26 May 2022 if elections are to be held on 9 July 2022.
The last possible date that the Writ can be issued is Saturday, 26 November 2022, if the elections are to be held on 9 January 2023.
In all, there is a 6-month window for when elections can be held spanning from any day between 9 July 2022 until 9 January 2023, and that mystery date is the prerogative of the Prime Minister to decide.
What political parties know for sure is that the Elections Office has said that it intends to be ready by 20 May 2022 and prepared for whatever election date is decided.
Every citizen aged eighteen years and over has the right to vote. However, this privilege is taken away, if, during the registration period, you are serving a prison term of 1 year or more in Fiji or another country, and if “under a law in force in Fiji, adjudged or declared to have a mental disorder”.
Rules for Me and Thee?
All registered political parties, their officials, agent, campaigners, “servants” of party, proposed candidates and their conduct are bound by 3 main laws.
It goes without saying that political parties find difficulty with many of the provisions in the laws, especially the new inclusions but we continue to discuss and negotiate with the Elections Office to ensure that elections processes do not add to the low voter turnout statistics.
The Political Parties (Registration, Conduct, Funding and Disclosures) law sets out how we political parties are to register ourselves, how we should conduct ourselves internally by way of our constitution and rules, how we should maintain our records, how we should file our disclosures annually, the grounds for suspension or de-registration, and of course political party and candidate funding and accounts.
The second law is the Electoral Act which details the elections process in totality to regulate on the conduct of election of Members of Parliament which includes timelines and processes for elections from the moment the Writ is issued, right up to the polling process, the count process, the court of disputed returns etc.
When the campaign period kicks in on 26 April 2022, "any political party, any candidate for election to Parliament and any person representing, or acting under the direction of, any political party or any candidate" is bound by the campaign rules specifically set out in section 116 of the Electoral Act.
What is of particular interest to the National Federation Party (NFP), is the chain of custody process which is a basic element of elections that upholds transparency. This has been raised with the Elections Office, during the course of previous meetings.
The third law is the Electoral (Registration of Voters) law, which details who can vote and how voters are to be registered given that the voter roll or "national register of voters" is key information for political parties that lists who is voting, and where they will be voting, and how (pre-poll, postal vote, or election day).
Political parties received one draft of the voter roll already last year, and the Elections Office has advised that there is now a January 2022 draft now available for purchase for $1,000.
Once the Writ is issued, voter registration stops and political parties will get a Final "national register of voters" list (upon payment) that allows us to finetune our strategies for campaigning, and ensure that we have polling agents at every polling venue and station, to monitor the count process.
What We Know So Far
At the most recent face-to-face meeting with the Supervisor of Elections and the new Chairperson of the Electoral Commission, we were given an update on the elections process, as well as a polling venue simulation.
For the first time ever, the full video version of this meeting is made transparent and publicly available on the Elections Office Facebook page.
During the meeting proper, the NFP, upon the earlier invitation of the Elections Office, tabled 3 agenda items.
Our first agenda item was related to the voter registration process and we raised 3 points, two of which had been previously communicated by email.
a) Voter Registration Queries
On voter registration, the NFP had received some questions about those who had an earlier version of the blue voter ID card that did not have the polling venue printed on it.
The guidance we got, was that it was advisable for all those with earlier versions of the blue voter card that did not have the polling venue printed on it, to upgrade their cards.
The second part of our voter registration question, was to raise concerns from voters who had attempted to re-register but because they were not born in Fiji, (even though they had voted previously and had Fiji passports), they could not re-register. One individual even presented their birth certificate in Gujerati script that no one at the Elections Office could read.
The advice we were given was that these individuals would either need to submit a translated version of the birth certificate, or submit a copy of their immigration status that is available from the Immigration Department.
In that same regard, the Electoral Commission put out an official decision (number 8 of 2022) dated 17 March 2022, directing the Elections Office to use the "Certificate of Citizenship" as verification, for voters born abroad who do not have a local birth certificate.
The third question we raised on voter registration was to do with voters abroad, who were also keen to know how to get re-registered in readiness for the elections.
The advice we received from the Elections Office, was that those overseas voters who are most likely to be postal voters, can use their old green voter ID cards, when they apply to vote by post.
If, however, those voters abroad have lost their voter ID cards they would need to get replacement voter ID cards done.
The Elections Office is in discussions with the Fiji Missions abroad about this, and political parties would be updated in due course.
b) Manifesto's and Costing Them
The second agenda item that NFP sought clarification on, was about the new provision in the Electoral law at section 116(4C).
This clause say's IF a political party, a candidate for elections, or any other person representing or acting under the direction of the political party or candidate, makes any commitment (made as part of a campaign for a general election, where the implementation of the commitment after the general election has financial implications), whether orally or in writing, the political party, candidate or other person must immediately provide a written explanation setting out the following information—
(i) how revenue for the financial commitment is to be raised;
(ii) how expenditure for the financial commitment is to be made;
(iii) how expenditure is to be allocated to different sectors and budget sector agencies; and
(iv) if expenditure exceeds revenue, how the deficit is to be financed.
Our questions to the Elections Office were three-fold. Who do we submit these written explanations to? By when (because the law says "immediately")? And what is the outcome of submitting these written explanations - are we graded or rated or suspended?
Needless to say, this discussion led to a long discussion among us and a few light-hearted moments, but the advice we were given was that this clause is "not in effect yet", but that we should document this matter in writing to the Elections Office. We fully intend to do so.
c) Our Complaint
The NFP complained about an allegation of voter intimidation and threat by a sitting Government Member of Parliament, against a voter who had organised a meeting for our NFP Party Leader and President in Marasa, Nadi.
The Elections Office invited us to put this in writing, where we have and we sought appropriate and swift action.
Continuity in Discussions
The next meeting with the Elections Office will be a Stakeholders Forum to Enhance Voter Participation, scheduled for 30 March. There were 10 spots available for members of the public who may be interested in participating.
There is to be another meeting scheduled later, to continue discussions with the Elections Office so that we stay focused on making sure that as many as possible, of the 660-670,000 voters expected to register, turn up and manifest their political rights at the upcoming polls.