Fiji Coup Supplement


7 June 2000

The Failure of Electoral Engineering in Fiji
by Jon Fraenkel

George Speight’s seizure of Fiji’s parliament may have shocked the world, but it comes as less of a surprise to those familiar with the situation here in Fiji.

Speight and his ethnic Fijian nationalist supporters have deposed the country’s elected prime minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, Fiji Islander of Indian descent. Chaudhry has been held hostage at gunpoint in the parliamentary complex ever since May 19th.

The military responded by announcing martial law, and declaring the country’s constitution – which was aimed at improving the political rights of Indo-Fijians – null and void.

It now seems reasonably likely that Speight’s demand for ethnic Fijian political supremacy will prove successful, regardless of the unequal position in which this would leave the country’s 44% Indo-Fijian population.

Speight’s attempted take-over has received considerable support among indigenous Fijians because many felt politically marginalised under Chaudhry’s Peoples Coalition government. An important part of the reason for this was the way Fiji’s Australian-style electoral system operated at the elections of May 1999.

At those elections, Chaudhry’s Fiji Labour Party romped home, obtaining 37 seats in the country’s 71 member parliament, the Bose Lewa. Under most of the best known alternative electoral systems, the Fiji Labour Party would not have had an absolute majority. It would have relied on the support of some of the Fijian parties, who consequently would have had a stronger say in the governments’ programme.

With its absolute majority, the Labour administration was able to govern for the year that it was in office without paying much attention to its indigenous Fijian allies. Yet Labour policies on land leasing and civil service appointments antagonised many ethnic Fijians.

In the aftermath of the election, all those Fijian parties who joined the Labour Party in the ‘Peoples Coalition’ have been engaged in internal power struggles. While some of their leaders took up ministerial portfolios, backbenchers and grass roots supporters veered towards opposition.

The President of one of these key Labour allies, Apisai Tora, went off to become leader of the militant Taukei (indigenous peoples) movement, whose ethnic nationalist supporters marched through the streets of Suva on May 19th. Speight’s take-over of parliament was timed to coincide with that march.

The leadership of another close ally of Chaudhry’s Labour Party, the Fijian Association Party, was challenged by prominent Fijian chiefs from the province of Tailevu. Many of those rebel chiefs are now inside parliament alongside Speight.

Under an alternative electoral system, Fiji’s parliament would have had a stronger opposition, composed both of ethnic Fijian and Indo-Fijian political parties. By annihilating the country’s opposition, the 1999 election made the resort to extra- parliamentary action that much more likely.

The party of former Prime Minister, Sitiveni Rabuka, the Soqosoqo ni Vakavulewa ni Taukei, obtained the largest share of the ethnic Fijian vote (38%). But under the new ‘alternative’ voting system, this party was reduced to a rump of only 8 seats in parliament. Under Fiji’s former first-past-the-post voting system, Rabuka’s party would have obtained 18 seats.

Rabuka responded by resigning his seat and taking up his current position as Chairman of the Fiji’s Great Council of Chiefs, rather than remaining part of an emasculated opposition in parliament.

The country’s largest Indo-Fijian party was wiped out at the 1999 polls. Despite securing 32% of the Indo-Fijian vote, Jai Ram Reddy’s National Federation Party did not secure a single seat in parliament.

The newly adopted ‘alternative’ or ‘preferential’ voting system gave the Fiji Labour Party key indigenous Fijian votes that it would not otherwise have been able to obtain.

Chaudhry’s Labour Party secured only 24 seats in Fiji’s 71- member parliament on the basis of Indo-Fijian votes alone. It was transfers of preference votes from three largely Fijian- backed parties gave the Labour Party its other 13 seats, taking it over the absolute majority threshold.

Those transfers of preference votes were, in most cases, not a genuine expression of voters’ choices.

Fiji’s ballot papers were split into two sections. People could either vote ‘below the line’ and list candidates in order of preference or they could vote ‘above the line’ by simply placing a tick next to one or other political party.

If voters completed the ballot paper ‘above the line’, transfers of these votes came under the control of Fiji’s political parties. Parties lodged lists of preferences with the Fiji Elections’ Office, and the transfer of ‘above the line’ votes was organised in accordance with these ‘party tickets’.

In May 1999, nine out of ten of the country’s voters simply placed a tick next to a first choice political party, rather than taking the more laborious option of listing candidates in order of preference.

Political parties widely campaigned for this kind of support, and the simpler tick option conformed to the format of ballot papers at Fiji’s previous elections.

In nearly half of all seats won in parliament (46.5%), results were decided by reference to these party lists. In Australian elections to the House of Representatives, where preferential voting is used but without Fiji-style split format ballot papers, the comparable figure is 25%.

In nearly a quarter of all Fiji’s constituencies (22.5%), the counting of party-controlled preference votes dislodged candidates who had a first count lead. Victory went instead to candidates who came from behind, and would have lost had the result been decided on the basis of the first count vote. In Australia, only in 6% of cases, on average, does the counting of second- or lower-order preferences change the first count result.

Fiji’s new electoral system was the outcome of a deliberate exercise in ‘electoral engineering’ designed to ameliorate ethnic polarisation in Fiji. Back in the mid-1990s, constitutional experts gathered together to deliberate on an amendment to the constitution.

One key figure in the discussions was American Professor, Donald Horowitz. He argued that the alternative vote system would ‘make moderation rewarding and penalize extremism’. The system was said to be ‘perfectly apt’ for Fiji. ‘It is an electoral system that meets the test of simplicity of operation, lack of ambiguity in producing electoral results, and conduciveness to the goal of inter-ethnic accommodation’, wrote Horowitz.

In practice, the system proved extraordinarily complex, the results remarkably ambiguous and its merits as a tool for promoting ethnic co-operation were highly questionable.

The constitutional experts reasoned that the alternative vote system would provide incentives towards the emergence of new forms of cross-ethnic allegiance and more conciliatory political parties.

Even if Indo-Fijian voters were reluctant to give their first preference to Fijian parties, they might give them a second- or third- preference. Similarly, largely Indo-Fijian parties would have an incentive to adopt more conciliatory positions on ethnically divisive issues so as to appeal to indigenous Fijian voters. This new electoral set-up was supposed to pave the way to a new era of ‘multi-ethnic’ government.

The new system had been virtually tailor-made to deliver former prime minister Rabuka back into office, although this time around in alliance with Indo-Fijian opposition leader, Jai Ram Reddy. The two leaders developed a close relationship in the run up to the polls.

Rabuka invited Reddy to address Fiji’s Great Council of Chiefs – the first time an Indo-Fijian had ever appeared before the highest institution in the indigenous Fijian hierarchy.

Reddy appealed to the Indo-Fijian electorate to forgive Rabuka for having led a coup back in 1987. Both leaders were determined together to take the ‘race question’ out of Fiji’s politics. The electoral system was designed to give great rewards to this kind of political co-operation.

Yet in May 1999, the Rabuka-Reddy coalition was emphatically defeated at the polls.

Contrary to the intentions of the electoral engineers, both parties were defeated because of their willingness to compromise with the other.

Amongst the ethnic Fijian electorate, the key change in voting patterns compared with previous elections in 1994 was the rise in support for the newly-formed Christian Democratic Party. The party obtained nearly 20% of indigenous Fijian votes, almost exactly matching the fall in the vote for Rabuka’s party.

The Christian Democrats emerged in the wake of Rabuka’s compromise on the constitution, accusing Rabuka of ‘selling out the rights and interests of Fijians’. The party sought a wider appeal amongst the largely Methodist ethnic Fijians by calls for a ban on Sunday trading and the declaration of Fiji as a Christian state. These demands were scarcely intended to endear the party to the country’s Indo-Fijians – 95% of whom are either Hindus or Muslims.

Amongst Indo-Fijian voters, Chaudhry’s Labour Party successfully appealed to the electorate on bread and butter issues. But it was Reddy’s willingness to co-operate with the much-despised 1987 coup-leader, Rabuka, that was the single most important reason for the swing in support away from the National Federation Party. The party’s share of the Indo-Fijian vote slumped from 54% in 1994 to 32% in 1999.

Instead of providing incentives to compromise, the preferential voting electoral system in practice penalised the more conciliatory parties.

Compared to the situation in other countries, Fiji’s electoral system yielded a highly disproportionate result.

Under proportional representation-type electoral systems, as in Italy or Germany, the distribution of seats is deliberately fairly close to the distribution of votes. Under the British-style first- past-the-post electoral system, small swings in the vote tend to result in large swings in the number of seats secured by victorious parties. There is a larger difference between the number of seats secured by each party and its number of votes.

The alternative vote system employed in Fiji yielded an extraordinarily large overall seats/votes difference. The index of disproportionality shows a 19.25% difference, well above the average under the two best known alternative electoral systems. This is also exceeded the comparable figure for Australia.

There are no quick-fix solutions, or elaborate types of ‘electoral engineering’, that will solve the deep-seated racial antagonisms in Fiji. Key political questions in the country obstinately continue to revolve around ethnically divisive questions.

In such a context, the best response is to put in place an electoral system that is as fair as possible; one in which the distribution of seats bears a closer relationship to the voting pattern.

The worst response is to try to artificially promote moderation, and penalise ethnic extremist political parties. This only drives them underground, and weakens the political will to tackle underlying inflammatory issues.

The irony of present-day Fiji is that ‘indigenous Fijian rights’, the clarion call behind Speight’s attempted coup, would have been far better defended under a more straightforward type of democracy.


Table; Average % Disproportionality in Legislative Elections

Alternative Vote Systems
Fiji 19.25
Australia 9.26

First-Past-the-Post Systems (Averages 1945-96)
India 11.38
New Zealand 11.11
United Kingdom 10.33

Proportional Representation Systems (Averages 1945-96)
Switzerland 2.53
Italy 3.25
Germany 2.52

Sources; Fiji Elections Office, Elections ’99; Lijphart, A Patterns of Democracy; Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 1999, tables 8.2. P162, & table 5.2, p76

Dr Jonathan Fraenkel
Lecturer Economic History School of Social & Economic Development
The University of the South Pacific Suva, Fiji
Phone: +679 212581 Fax: +679 301487


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