Fiji’s open-list electoral system paves way for more diversity in representation
9 Dec 2022|

Election posters often show something useful about the intensity and range of partisan feeling in the community on the eve of an election. Having been an election night analyst for more than three decades, I paid close attention to the banners, billboards and posters that I observed in the cab from Nadi to Suva on a recent visit to Fiji.

Impressions from a moving vehicle are just that—anecdotal impressions, of course. Nevertheless, I was struck by evidence of some ways that Fijians are preparing for the 14 December general election.

One very visible sign of the impending poll was an almost a universal election trope. Roadworks were virtually omnipresent on my journey. As far as my cabbie was concerned, these public works were as much an advertisement for the government as the roadside billboards.

The billboards themselves were a story. It seems the FijiFirst party purchased time on all the available billboards shortly before the election was called. As a result, other parties have had to scramble to find whatever alternatives were around. While morally suspect, this tactic is not illegal and, as one opposition critic noted, it was only possible because the other parties were asleep at the wheel in terms of their pre-election preparations.

The message on the billboards reveals something curious about the electoral strategy of Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama’s governing FijiFirst party. Many don’t to have a message beyond his image, party name and often, but not always, the PM’s voting number—234. Some have a photo of Bainimarama with his attorney-general, Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum, as a show of unity in the duumvirate that has governed Fiji for most of the past 16 years.

Promoting the party’s leader can be a successful team tactic in some electoral systems. However, Fiji’s open-list proportional system imposes some critical limitations on adopting a presidential-style ‘beauty contest’ strategy.

The European closed party list system ensures that a vote for a party (or its leader) leads to fairly predictable outcomes in who is elected. Party candidates are successful in the order that the party places them on the ballot, so key party members have a privileged path into parliament regardless of personal popularity.

The open-list system elects candidates in the order of the number of votes the candidates receive. There is no specific quota that a candidate needs. A high personal vote is therefore essential. A candidate can be swept into office by the party’s proportional share of seats with a modest personal vote as long as it’s high enough in the party’s election night results table.

The key to achieving a high personal vote is to have supporters circle (or tick or cross) the unique number assigned to each candidate. There are no party labels, photos or names to prompt the voter in making a choice on a ballot, which can have hundreds of three-digit numbers.

This is why FijiFirst’s strategy this election is somewhat perplexing. The more the vote is concentrated on the leader, the fewer votes there are to elect other members of the team. Fewer votes reduces the possible distinction among the remaining 54 party candidates, which increases the likelihood of unexpected results, as Faiyaz Koya found in 2018. Koya went into the 2018 election as minister for industry, trade, tourism, lands and mineral resources and lost his seat with only 547 personal votes, well down from his 2014 result.

However, his return to the parliament in 2020 illustrates another feature of the open-list proportional electoral system. Although the personal vote decides the order of who is elected in the national poll, party preferences determine the filling of casual vacancies. Each party provides a list prior to the election with the Fiji Electoral Office for filling vacancies. A FijiFirst vacancy occurred in 2020 and the party list had Koya as the next available candidate.

Constituting Fiji as a single national electorate was a key decision that made a leader-focused campaign politically viable.

When Father David Arms put the open-list proportional electoral system before the National Council for Building a Better Fiji in 2008, I was asked to assist him with helping to shape and present the system in terms of its consequences and relevance in comparison with other possibilities.

One issue we debated among ourselves was how many constituencies might be needed to ensure geographic representation while preserving a high degree of proportionality. It was felt desirable to have multiple constituencies in order to guarantee representation for different geographic interests of the archipelago.

As of late 2012, the decision on how many constituencies would be fairest was still moot. Within a year, when the system was incorporated into the 2013 constitution, those concerns were submerged in favour of a single national roll.

The value to Bainimarama and FijiFirst of a single national constituency was demonstrated in the system’s first outing in 2014. Bainimarama won just over 200,000 votes of the almost 500,000 ballots cast. The 49 other FijiFirst candidates combined added only 94,000 votes, giving the party 59% of the total vote.

As expected, the mechanics of the open-list system came more into play in the 2018 election. The difference between the vote shares of the parties was less marked, although the number of successful parties remained static at three. Bainimarama still enjoyed the greatest individual support of any candidate in 2018, but his personal vote dropped (although his share of the party tally increased) since FijiFirst secured a bare majority with just over 50%. The Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA) led by 1987 coup leader Sitiveni Rabuka won the lion’s share of the remaining vote, while the National Federation Party (NFP), the other opposition party, made a very modest gain on its 2014 result.

The open-list system’s proportionality encourages representational diversity. Seven parties contested the 2014 election. The number was down to six in 2018, but nine parties are registered for the 2022 poll.

The number of parties is significant because the threshold of 5% that a party must cross to win a share of the seats in parliament should be low enough to give many parties a chance at success. The idea is that that would lead to compromise and the moderating influence of coalition-building.

So far the success rate for parties has been lower than expected due to the dominance of FijiFirst in what has been a largely two-party system since 2014.

Signs are that the 2022 election will bring the proportionality of the open-list system into greater play. The fact that more parties are registered to contest the national ballot is one indicator that there’s greater support for more diversity.

Rabuka’s split from SODELPA to form the People’s Alliance Party (PAP) has weakened the major opposition party. This is expected to free up votes to go to other parties since the divorce was acrimonious on both sides.

The NFP has recruited well and appears likely to recover some Indo-Fijian voters who defected massively to FijiFirst in 2014. Moreover, the NFP and the PAP confirmed very early a pre-election working arrangement to campaign together.

At this stage in the 2022 campaign, it seems probable that there will be four parties in parliament with room for a fifth. However, without public opinion polls, there’s little guidance as to how any of the parties are tracking in the lead-up to election day.

Some, like the All Peoples Party, whose manifesto includes a promise ‘to leave the United Nations and join the Commonwealth of Israel’, will not be in the mix it seems.