30 Jan 2017

Fiji elections body allowed to lapse out of existence

10:10 am on 30 January 2017

With an election looming in Fiji in 2018, the commission responsible for overseeing preparations has been allowed to lapse out of existence.

The Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama at Government House in Auckland

Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama. Photo: RNZ/ALEX PERROTTET

On 9 January, the three-year term of the independent Electoral Commission, a constitutionally-mandated seven-member body tasked with supervising the Elections Office, which is responsible for preparing the vote, expired.

Opposition parties say there appears to be no rush to replace the commission, which they say raises concerns about the state of Fiji's nascent democracy as it prepares to enter its second elections since Frank Bainimarama's 2006 coup.

"There are no longer commissioners and there is no longer an Electoral Commission in place and that's serious because it's a constitutional office," said Biman Prasad, the leader of the opposition National Federation Party.

"It shouldn't be allowed to remain vacant but that is exactly what has happened."

Before the commission's term ended on 9 January, Professor Prasad said, an oversight body chaired by Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, the Constitutional Offices Commission, was supposed to appoint a new commission or extend the term of the former one. Professor Prasad said it was not clear when the Constitutional Offices Commission planned to meet to carry out its duty.

Commissioners spoken to by RNZ International, none of whom agreed to be interviewed on the record, confirmed that their term had ended, and that they did not know of a replacement.

For Professor Prasad, there's a particular urgency. Earlier this month, one of his MPs, Tupou Draunidalo, resigned six months after she was suspended from parliament for breaching standing orders. The party has selected Parmod Chand to be its next member of parliament, an appointment that needs to be formally approved by the electoral commission.

Vijay Naidu, a professor of development studies at the University of the South Pacific and a former member of the Electoral Commission, said the fact that the commission had been allowed to lapse into oblivion was "very concerning," and raised serious issues about fairness.

What was more concerning though, he said, was that the Elections Office and its supervisor, Mohammed Saneem, were now working unsupervised.

"I don't think that's a very good thing," said Professor Naidu in a phone interview. "The thing is that the Supervisor of Elections is only accountable in terms of what he's doing with regards to the Electoral Commission. But he's also answerable to the Minister of Elections, who is also the general secretary of the ruling party - Fiji First."

That minister is the Attorney General and deputy Prime Minister, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum.

Voters queue at John Wesley College in Fiji

Voters in Fiji's 2014 election. Photo: RNZ / Philippa Tolley

Professor Naidu, who stepped down from the Electoral Commission in 2015 over frustrations with Mr Saneem, said the lapse raised a raft of questions about potential conflicts of interest, especially in light of a recent court ruling.

In 2014, the electoral commission took the elections office to court alleging that Mr Saneem had acted contrary to the commission's orders: "He had set about overruling us in a decision that meant a number of candidates were disadvantaged and excluded from participating in the election," said Professor Naidu. "And at least one person was allowed to stand in the election whom the Electoral Commission had determined shouldn't be allowed to do so."

The High Court found the complaint unfounded, but the Court of Appeal in November overturned that ruling, finding that Mr Saneem had in fact acted contrary to the commission's directions, and at the same time affirming that the Elections Office was answerable to the orders of the Electoral Commission.

But now there is no one for Mr Saneem and his office to answer to, and Professor Naidu said that compounded his worries as the office's preparations for next year's polls were already under full swing.

The elections office, Mr Saneem, the government and the former chairman of the Electoral Commission, Chen Bunn Young, did not responded to requests for comment.

In the meantime, however, Mr Saneem told the Fiji Times he was continuing to work hard towards next year's elections and had no plans to suspend his work while there was no commission.

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