Remote Fiji voters to go to polls early
:About 10 percent of Fiji's voters are due to start early voting Wednesday in the country's landmark election.
About 10% of Fiji's voters are due to start early voting today in the country's landmark election.
But several political parties are suspicious of the plan to open nearly 550 polling stations around the country before the September 17th election date.
Sally Round reports.
Several parties say their campaigning and election day plans have been thrown into a spin by the announcement that pre-polling and absentee voting would begin two weeks out from the election.
About 66,000 voters living on outlying islands and in remote inland areas, are among those who've been told to vote early in pre-polling which lasts up until two days before the main election day.
On August 24th the Fijian Elections Office published the list of communities which are to cast their votes early giving details of polling venues and voting times.
Aman Ravindra Singh of the Fiji's People's Democratic Party says his party's campaign has been compromised.
"Obviously if we knew about all these areas which would have pre-polling starting on the 3rd then we would have reached them first as a matter of priority but campaigning continues and we have yet to reach some of these interior areas and all of a sudden polling will be taking place in these areas. It shows the chaos in the Supervisor of Elections office."
Mr Ravindra Singh says early voting is news to several communities the party's been talking to including one in the mountainous area near Tavua which the party visited at the weekend.
"When we went to this meeting and we informed people about pre-polling taking place they were all in absolute shock. All of them were anticipating going to their local school where polling had always taken place ... that was going to happen on the 17th. So they were in total shock when we informed them."
Fiji's National Federation Party says the plan is confused, rushed and disorganised.
Its leader Biman Prasad says he too has come across voters not aware they must vote early and he questions the need for early voting in some areas.
"The area that I was in last evening is not a remote area. The reason that the people gave there is it's a flood-prone area so perhaps that was the reason they used. But to me it didn't sound a very convincing reason to have pre-polling in that area which is very accessible and two or three kilometres from Sigatoka town."
Dr Prasad say the NFP wants a concerted campaign from the election authorities to ensure all communities in pre-polling areas do not miss out on their chance to vote.
Pio Tabaiwalu of SODELPA says the lack of warning around pre-polling further jeopardises the election's credibility.
"Most of this pre-polling is happening in the rural areas and these are predominantly SODELPA strongholds and some of them are quite accessible so there's no logical reasion why they should have prepolls so yes we're very wary, very suspicious of where, the locations this is happening, almost ten percent will be voting in prepolls and this is a significant number."
SODELPA is rushing through training of its own observers at polling venues where early votes will be cast and is busy recruiting local villagers for the task.
Pio Tabaiwalu says the international observer mission will be crucial in scrutinising the polls especially in the next two weeks.
"Many parties do not have party agents on the ground and they're really depending on the observer mission to look at all the process from taking the ballot boxes to the prepolls, observing the polling itself and also the filling of the boxes and the transportation of the boxes back to Suva. And they have to be stored until the 17th. The time frame is really what we want scrutinised."
Mick Beddoes of the United Front for a Democratic Fiji says party observers have not been allowed to travel with ballot boxes to and from the remote Lau and Lomaiviti groups of islands where pre polling is to take place..
He says the process is open to abuse.
"Our concern is also that they don't plan to count the votes at the polling station at the conclusion of the vote as has been promised and as is supposed to happen and they're going to bring these ballot boxes back on the same vessels. We're talking about a week perhaps of these things floating around there in the Pacific Ocean somewhere. All sorts of things can go wrong."
An elections expert Andrew Ladley says pre-polling is common around the world and regarded as a means of increasing participation where it's done properly.
"It's very difficult to scrutinise polling in remote stations especially over three weeks as opposed to a concentrated vote on election day where election agents, party agents and so on can go and watch and everybody is observing. So the integrity mechanisms are important and where this works well, as in most democracies, they have mechanisms to check on double voting or whether people are registered and so on and so forth within the electoral system, as well as mechanisms that are available to any parties that want to watch it. But it's much harder if it's being done without notice and by surprise. The key question will be whether the integrity checking mechanisms are up to assuring all participants that this one is fair."
Fijian Elections Office teams left Suva on Tuesday to conduct polling in the Lau group of islands and the Elections Supervisor Mohammed Saneem stressed they should conduct themselves with professionalism to ensure confidence in the elections process.
The elections authorities have also called on village headmen - the Turaga ni Koros - and District Officers to make sure voters are aware if they're to be pre-polled.
The Elections Office has not responded to our request for an interview.
This is Sally Round.
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