Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Voices of the People - What People Think of Democracy in Fiji

This week we continue to examine the findings of the research book “Voices of the People: Perceptions and Preconditions for Democratic Development in Fiji,” published by the Pacific Theological College’s Institute for Research and Social Analysis.

Over the past two weeks we have looked at the findings of the research project on what the focus group discussion participants and interviewees thought of decision-making and leadership in Fiji. We now turn to a summary of what participants of the research study had to say on the issue of democracy.

Out of a total of 81 participants, 72 (89%) shared their views on different aspects of democracy in Fiji. A comparison between responses of participants in focus group discussions and interviewees shows some striking similarities, but also some differences. The major differences between their responses can mostly be ascribed to the different levels of formal education and status of the two groupings.

Most participants are representative of the majority of Fijians, with low to moderate incomes; while the majority of participants have been formally educated to primary school level, few have attended secondary school, and even fewer have undergone studies at tertiary level. In contrast, the interviewees represent a much smaller section of the social strata, with moderate to higher incomes, the majority having degrees from tertiary institutions and being in leading positions in Fijian society.

The majority of focus group participants know little about the origins, history and development of democracy, although a few participants in each group were familiar with some of the key elements of democracy, such as equality, human rights, the rule of law, and participation in decision-making through elections. Even so, focus group participants clearly view the current system in Fiji as undemocratic because the lawfully elected government was ousted through a coup in 2006, the Constitution abolished, and Fiji ruled since then by a military government, through the issuance of decrees. In addition, human rights have been violated and there were (and still are) restrictions in place with regard to the freedom of expression.

Given a choice of governance systems, the vast majority of participants prefer democracy for Fiji, and a substantial number of participants are - for a variety of reasons - opposed to or critical of the current government. It should be noted, however, that a small majority of participants expressed their appreciation for certain programmes, projects and policies introduced by the military government. Regardless, there is agreement between supporters and opponents alike that there is a need for reform of the electoral system, and the introduction of regulations for political parties and aspiring politicians.

Similar to focus group participants, the vast majority of interviewees expressed their support for democracy as their preferred model of governance, as well as reforms of the electoral system, and rejected in principle the idea of bringing about change through coups; they also rejected any sort of racially-based politics.

Most interviewees and participants affirmed the importance of the role of political parties in a democratic system, in particular their representation of the interests of citizens. They were, however, critical of their performance, with the accountability of political parties to citizens being a key issue. In addition, many called for the reform of political parties and the system of governance, so that these are grounded specifically in the cultural, religious and political realities of Fiji. Such reforms are seen as imperative, not only for strengthening citizens’ active participation in political affairs, but also for curbing the excesses of individualism. However, the quality of political participation depends on how citizens wish to participate in their systems of governance.

Taking into account the different views with regard to elections and political parties, the study’s key findings are:
(a) political parties have not performed well in the past;
(b) political parties are essential in any future democracy, but should be fundamentally reformed; and
(c) Fiji needs to search for a more appropriate form of representation.

Based on these findings, there seemed to be three clear proposals emerging from most focus groups and interviews for strengthening citizens’ participation.
·         Firstly, race must be removed from the electoral system, and political parties’ agenda;
·         secondly, citizens and leaders need to understand the purpose of elections and politics in general - hence the need for an inclusive civic education programme; and,
·         thirdly, the one-person-one-vote electoral system is the most appropriate system for Fiji.

Based on this analysis, it can be concluded that Fiji (like most ‘fully’ democratic countries in the Western understanding) is still far from achieving the ideal of democracy, which is, by definition, the government of the whole people by the people equally represented. A major reason for this is that the underlying economic structures in the globalized capitalist economy prevent the exercise of democracy; thus, relying solely on voting every four or five years as a means of controlling economic, social and other policies is inadequate. Representation of the people through elections may be a necessary precondition for democracy, but a state can only be genuinely democratic when elections are reinforced by the enhanced participation of citizens at all levels of decision-making in all spheres of public life.

The research team therefore proposed that the liberal representative model of democracy needs to be challenged and complemented by approaches aiming at ‘deepening democracy’. In this view, democracy is not only a set of rules, procedures and institutional design, nor should it be reduced solely to competition amongst political parties; rather, it is a process through which citizens exercise ever deepening control over decisions which affect their lives, and as such, democracy is constantly under construction.

In the final analysis, full democratic citizenship is achieved not only through the exercise of basic political and civic rights, but also through social rights, which in turn may be realized through participatory processes and dialogue. Famous examples of this are the Porto Alegre experiment, and what became known as ‘forum politics’, which preceded the innovative activist-based movements of Eastern Europe in the late 1980s.

The focus of ‘deepening democracy’ is on creating new democratic arenas and spaces, and on participatory governance at the local level in particular. This approach is close to deliberative understandings of democracy, which shift the focus from a ‘voting-centric’ to a ‘talk-centric’ democracy, and to concepts of empowered participatory governance. As a result, it is argued that contestation by combative political parties is not the only possible democratic model; consensus-seeking through village or town meetings is another real option.

Read more details of findings of the research study in “Voices of the People: Perceptions and Preconditions for Democratic Development in Fiji,” which is available from the Pacific Theological College, Suva.

Next week: What the people think of the Rule of Law in Fiji.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”


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