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Elections - Sep 2014

Following eight years of military rule, Fiji held general elections on September 17 in accordance with the constitution promulgated in 2013. In a contest deemed credible and “broadly reflecting the will of the Fijian people” by the Australian-led Multinational Observer Group, citizens elected 50 new parliamentarians. Josaia Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama’s Fiji First Party won 32 of the 50 seats and he was sworn in as prime minister. Bainimarama led a bloodless coup in 2006. In 2009 his interim government abrogated the existing constitution and then ruled by decree until national elections returned the country to a constitutional republic during the year. Civilian authorities regained effective control over the security forces after the general elections.

On 17 September 2014, voters elected 50 members of parliament. With the Fiji First Party winning 32 seats and an outright majority, Bainimarama was sworn in as prime minister on September 22. Parliament’s first sitting since 2006 took place in October. Observers deemed parliamentary elections held September 17 to be generally credible and “broadly reflected the will of the Fijian people.”

The constitution guarantees the political right to form and join political parties, to campaign for political parties or a cause, to be registered as a voter, to vote by secret ballot in elections or referendums, to run for public office, and to hold that office. These rights are limited, however, to allow the government to prescribe eligibility requirements for voters, candidates, political party officials, and holders of public office. Under the The Public Order Act Amendment Decree (POAD) permits are required for political meetings in both public and private venues.

In 2013 the government published the Political Parties Registration Decree. The decree canceled the registration of all 20 registered political parties and required that parties submit applications, which must include 5,000 member signatures, for registration. Only three of the 20 existing parties, two independent candidates, and four newly formed parties were able to comply with these requirements and register successfully. The law allows political parties to be deregistered for any election offense and mandates trade union leaders must quit their positions before running as candidates, a provision that applied to several opposition party leaders during the year.

Section 115 of the 2014 Electoral Decree restricts any person, entity, or organization receiving funding from foreign governments, intergovernmental or nongovernmental organizations, or multilateral agencies from conducting or participating in any campaigns, including meetings, debates, panel discussions, interviews, publishing materials, or any public forum discussing the elections. Penalties for convictions of violations of the section incur up to 10 years in prison, a F$50,000 ($26,250) fine, or both. Section 115 allows universities to hold panel discussions and organize inclusive public forums. The Electoral Commission vetted all civic education materials produced by NGOs and sometimes refused to grant publication. The supervisor of elections accused the Citizens Constitutional Forum (CCF) of breaching section 115 after the NGO held a public forum in partnership with the USP on July 29 and referred the matter to FICAC for investigation. On August 7, FICAC raided CCF and USP offices. The investigation remained pending at year’s end.

Tension between ethnic Fijians and the Indo-Fijian minority was a longstanding problem. Indigenous Fijians, or iTaukei, make up an estimated 58 percent of the population, Indo-Fijians comprise 36 percent, and the remaining 6 percent is composed of Europeans, Chinese, and Rotuman and other Pacific Islander communities. The abrogated constitution contained a nonjusticiable compact that cited the “paramountcy” of Fijian interests as a guiding principle and provided for affirmative action and “social justice” programs to “secure effective equality” for ethnic Fijians and Rotumans, “as well as for other communities.” The compact chiefly benefited the indigenous Fijian majority, although Indo-Fijians dominated the commercial sector.

The government publicly stated its opposition to such policies, which it characterized as racist, and called for the elimination of discriminatory laws and practices that favor one race over another; nonetheless, as of year’s end some programs with affirmative action components favoring indigenous Fijians remained in place. Indigenous Fijians continued to dominate the civil service and security forces. In an effort to address the sensitive question of ethnic and national identity, in 2010 the government decreed that the country’s citizens would henceforth be known as “Fijians,” a term that previously was understood to refer only to the indigenous population. Indigenous Fiji Islanders would become known as “iTaukei”--literally, “owners”--in the Fijian language. The 1997 constitution used the term “Fiji Islander” to refer to all citizens.

Land tenure remained a highly sensitive and politicized issue. Ethnic Fijians communally held approximately 87 percent of all land, the government held 4 percent, and the remainder was freehold land, which private individuals or companies held. All indigenous land is held in a statutory trust by the iTaukei Land Trust Board (TLTB) for the benefit of indigenous landholding units.

Most cash-crop farmers were Indo-Fijians, the majority of whom are descendants of indentured laborers who came to the country during the British colonial era. Virtually all Indo-Fijian farmers were obliged to lease land from ethnic Fijian landowners. Many Indo-Fijians believed that limits on their ability to own land and their consequent dependency on leased land from indigenous Fijians constituted de facto discrimination against them. Many indigenous Fijian landowners believed that the rental formulas prescribed in the national land tenure legislation discriminated against them as the resource owners. This situation contributed significantly to communal tensions.

To improve access to land, the government established a “land bank” in the Ministry of Lands under the land use decree for the purpose of leasing land from indigenous landowning units through the TLTB and subleasing the land to individual tenants for lease periods of up to 99 years. The Land Bank, however, began leasing land directly to tenants, without TLTB involvement and sometimes with undue pressure on landowners to “deposit” their land in the land bank.

In 2011 revisions to the formula for distributing lease proceeds to indigenous landowners abolished the system of chiefly privilege in land lease income distribution and provided for a “one person, one share” system. This change contributed to an increase in lease renewals, as individual members of landowning units received a greater share of lease monies than under the TLTB. The constitution includes other new provisions protecting land leases and land tenancies, but observers noted that the provisions seemed to have unintended consequences, including weakening the overall legal structure governing leases and other such contracts.

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