A man of calm intelligence amidst the hyperbole of discussion on Fiji, Brij Lal, was interviewed by staff of the Fiji Sun newspaper.
Room for compromise in electoral reform
Professor Brij Lal, one of the architects of the 1997 Constitution spoke to Fiji Sun Deputy Chief of Staff Sera Janine about the proposed electoral reforms.
Fiji Sun: The draft charter suggests a review and change to the country's electoral system which is stipulated in the 1997 Constitution.
The proposal to remove communal voting aims to do away with race-based voting.
Do you think there is a guarantee that voting along racial lines could be a thing of the past with this new system?
Lal: The proposal to do away with the racial voting system is welcomed widely, across the political platform, by Mr Qarase as well as Mr Chaudhry. There is no guarantee that any electoral system by itself will eliminate ethnic block voting in Fiji.
The question is not whether Fiji should move away from racial voting, the real question is how fast and at what pace.
The Charter proposes to abolish racial voting in one go, while there are others who suggest that Fiji should move in that direction in a gradual, but decisive manner. In this context, the recommendations of the Reeves' Commission may be worth re-visiting.
There is room for compromise and movement here that should be explored.
Fiji Sun: They said the use of the alternative vote system "strengthened extremist elements and weakened the forces of political moderation".
As a co-architect of the 1997 Constitution what was the objective of introducing the AV system as opposed to the proportional representation system (using the open list option) which is now being proposed by the NCBBF in the draft charter?
Lal: The Reeves Commission's recommendation of the Alternative Vote system was consistent with its Terms of Reference, which required the Commission to recommend political arrangements likely to enhance multi-ethnic cooperation and harmony through either multi-ethnic political parties or through multi-ethnic coalitions.
We thought the AV system was the best option for that purpose, with like-minded parties trading preferences with each other.
In the 1999 elections, some political parties abused the spirit embedded in the AV system.
In an effort to win at any cost, they gave first preferences to parties which had diametrically opposed political philosophies, FLP and VLV being one example.
Instead of promoting moderation, the AV system was used as a blunt instrument to beat those political opponents who posed the greatest threat. And for that, Fiji has paid a huge price.
It should be remembered that any electoral system is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
First you ask what kind of political culture you want in the country, and then you choose your electoral system accordingly.
Fiji Sun: The Electoral Commission is of the view that the PR system would ensure fair and just electoral outcomes. Do you think this could be possible?
Lal: That is the theory, the expectation.
The PR system is likely to encourage the sprouting of smaller political parties, political parties with strength in particular regions of the country, to the likely detriment of larger political parties.
But at the end of the day, they will have to compromise and work together in government if they want to be in power. If you cannot make a constitutionally mandated power sharing arrangement to work, think of the complexities of making a large number of smaller parties work together in government. This is not an impossible task, but it is daunting.
Fiji Sun: Consultation teams travelling around the country are preaching that the charter could be the solution to Fiji's coup culture. Do you think that what is on paper could be effective in practise?
Lal: The future of the Charter looks bleak with opposition now from all political parties and other organisations to important aspects of it.
Unilateral imposition will not solve any problem. I cannot see how precisely the Charter will help eradicate the coup culture.
The military has been at the centre of all the coups in Fiji.
Unless you come to grips with this inescapable fact, Fiji will always be at risk when you have a large standing army in an environment where there is blatant disregard for the rule of law and the verdict of the ballot box.
Giving the military an enhanced role in the governance of the country, as the Charter proposes, will be paving the way for a militarised democracy.
People of Fiji will have to ponder deeply whether that is the route they wish to take.
Fiji Sun: The NCBBF continues to claim that they have "alot of support" in all areas that their charter teams visit. At these places people are asked to fill out forms and state their stance on the draft document.
Apart from the NCBBF's version of events, there is no reliable source to gauge the actual reception from people around the country to this draft document.
What is a good way that you can suggest that an independent survey of opinions on the draft charter can be conducted?
Lal: No one really believes in their hearts of hearts that the consultation process is a resounding success, or even a moderate one, otherwise there would be no need for an extension.
People are not rushing to attend the consultation meetings in their hundreds.
Given the way the consultation process is carried out, with the police, the military and the civil service in tow,any right thinking person will have to question the credibility of the signed pieces of paper.
There is a widespread perception of implicit compulsion and intimidation in the process.
This may not be the intention of the Charter people, but it is the perception. If the Charter people have faith in the claim that the majority of people are supporting the initiative, then why not put it to a refrendum.
Another option is for the Charter to be forwarded to the President's Forum where it should be scrutinised and debated by all the major stakeholders. And whatever consensus emerges there could then be incorporated into the constitution in the proper, prescribed way.
Fiji Sun: There are plans for a president's political forum to be convened soon. How could this benefit the nation and political parties?
Lal: How soon the President's Forum is convened remains to be seen. The track record of the interim administration in moving expeditoiusly on matters of pressing public importance is not encouraging.
None of the people invited to serve on the Forum have indicated their availability so far. Rebuffing Sir Paul Reeves, the Commonwealth envoy, may have consequences we haven't contemplated.
We are now realistically looking at next year as the earliest date.
But with the interim administration adamant that things will be done its way and no other way, the prospects do not look good.
But the impasse has to be broken, and a representative, credible and neutral President's Forum is the best way forward.
Fiji Sun: Does the president have the mandate to convene such a forum, in line with the Constitution?
Lal: The President has both the legal as well as the moral authority to do all he can to resolve the current impasse in accordance with the spirit and the letter of the constitution and to restore Fiji to parliamentary democracy as early as possible.
He must demonstrate personal and moral leadership at a critical time like this for all the people of the country and not just a section of it.
Inaction or procastination will have the unfortunate and unwitting effect of diminishing the dignity and stature of the President's office.
That is something Fiji can ill-afford.