By Finau Fonua, RNZ Pacific journalist
Fiji MP and the leader of the opposition National Federation Party, Professor Biman Prasad, is accusing Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama’s ruling FijiFirst Party of suppressing opposition parties with newly amended electoral laws ahead of the country’s general elections this year.
“These are draconian pieces of electoral laws which are designed to keep the opposition parties at bay,” Professor Prasad said.
“They are designed to persecute and gag the opposition parties and prevent them from campaigning. These are absurd and stupid laws governing the electoral process,” he added.
The Electoral Amendment Bill 2022 gives the country’s Supervisor of Elections, Mohammed Saneem, the right to “direct a person, by notice in writing, to furnish any relevant information or document…notwithstanding the provisions of any other written law on confidentiality, privilege or secrecy”.
It means candidates have no rights of confidentiality if ordered to hand over a document, and the punishments for now complying range from fines of up to $50,000 to a prison term of more than five years.
Saneem has been accused in the past of having a pro-government bias.
“You would never experience such absurd and ridiculous levels of conflict of interest,” Professor Prasad said.
‘We can’t even criticise’
“The laws have been made by this government led by the Attorney-General, who is also the Minister for Elections, and who is also the General Secretary of the FijiFirst Party. We can’t even criticise the Supervisor of Elections, so I must be very careful about what I say with respect to him [Mohammed Saneem].”
Attorney-General Aiyaz Khaiyum-Sayed said the amendments were necessary for the Secretary of Elections to vet candidates.
“Without this specific power, the Secretary of Elections is unable to make enquiries to obtain information necessary for the Secretary of Elections to arrive at decisions as required by the Act. Such powers are also extremely important to allow the Secretary of Elections to conduct enquiries into allegations of breaches of campaign provisions,” Khaiyum-Sayed told Parliament when the Electoral Amendment Bill 2022 was tabled last month.
Professor Prasad alleges that only the FijiFirst party has the freedom to campaign “as they want, when they want, where they want, how they want”.
He said the opposition “have to look behind our backs constantly to make sure we don’t fall behind the wrong side of the law”.
Bainimarama’s main rival and leader of the People’s Alliance Party, Sitiveni Rabuka, shares Professor Prasad’s sentiments.
“It [electoral law amendments] is really just to tie down the hands and feet of the opposition parties,” Rabuka said.
Hampers ‘smooth running of elections’
“It does not facilitate the smooth running of an election and campaigns but only hampers the progress of other political parties,” he said.
Prime Minister Bainimarama has maintained power in the country as a popular leader since he won the democratic elections in 2014.
But opposition leaders say he is losing support due to a totalitarian style of governance that has been in force since Bainimarama first came to power after staging a coup in 2006.
Professor Prasad said foreign nations need to take notice of recent political developments in Fiji.
He said the country was not a “true democracy” because the government has been actively using laws to suppress dissent.
‘Don’t be fooled by propaganda’
“Don’t be fooled by this propaganda by Frank Bainimarama and Sayed-Khaiyum on that international stage that we have a genuine democracy,” he said.
“Fiji is nowhere near a genuine democracy. This is a bunch who came into power through the barrel of a gun in 2006.”
“They made their own constitution, they made their own laws and they want to remain in power at any cost, giving an appearance to the international community that somehow that we are genuine democracy.”
Professor Prasad said the international community — including neighbours Australia and New Zealand — should be “seriously concerned about what’s going on” in the country.
“The international community absolutely cannot ignore these fundamental laws used by the government to gag the opposition from effectively participating in the election.”
RNZ Pacific has tried many times to contact FijiFirst for a response to this story but has yet to receive one.
This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.