Groundbreaking Observer Group Certifies Fiji Elections
April 22, 2015
On April 12, the Multinational Observer Group released its final report on last September’s national elections in Fiji, the first since a military coup there in 2006. Confirming its preliminary findings released shortly after the vote, the MOG deemed the elections credible: “The outcome of the 2014 Fijian election broadly represented the will of the Fijian voters. The conditions were in place for Fijians to exercise their right to vote freely.”
For several decades, Fiji has endured severe political polarization and a series of coups driven by conflict between indigenous Fijians (“iTaukei”) and Indo-Fijians (brought to Fiji from India during the colonial period to work the sugar cane fields). Although local politics – as always – were a factor in the elections, the larger contest was over a vision for Fiji’s future – as a multi-ethnic nation, or two mono-ethnic mini-states. A majority of both ethnicities opted for a multi-ethnic future.
The success of this complex and fragile transition owes most to the Fijian people themselves, both winners and losers, who in a difficult environment insisted on a fair and honest process. But it also owes much to the international community, which first encouraged and cajoled the government to hold elections, and then, through engagement and observation, helped ensure the elections were transparent and credible, and that the results were accepted by all parties.
The Multinational Observer Group was itself a groundbreaking undertaking in several respects. Typically, international observation efforts are conducted by specialist organizations, parliamentary delegations, or political parties, with observers drawn from parliaments or parties, or hired directly from a global cadre of election consultants. The MOG was different, and perhaps unique, in that it was organized by the foreign ministries of 13 participating countries (plus the European Union and the Melanesian Spearhead Group) and managed by diplomatic personnel seconded from those ministries.
Usually, a diplomatic mission in a country will try to distance itself from an observer mission – a diplomat’s job, after all, is to be diplomatic, not to pass judgment. In this case, however, the invitation to observe was directed specifically to the diplomatic community, with the understanding that a positive outcome would lead to normalization of relations and allow Fiji’s re-admittance to the Commonwealth, from which it had been suspended after the coup. Faced with a new, complex, and consequential task, the diplomatic community performed magnificently, with its legal, political, and country specialists setting a new standard for analysis and reporting.
The MOG also demonstrated the growing importance of South/South cooperation in democratic development, and highlighted the growing number of nations involved in democracy assistance and support. Of the fifteen nations and regional organizations involved in the MOG (Australia, Canada, the European Union, India, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, the Melanesian Spearhead Group, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, Russia, South Africa, Turkey, the UK, and the USA), many would not typically be included in a list of democracy assistance providers. But these younger democracies, with their more recent experiences of democratic transition, may be even more relevant to emerging democracies than long-established democracies.
The MOG was co-led by India, Indonesia, and Australia. Indonesia and India (along with South Korea) are emerging as significant players in Asian democracy assistance, and had a major role in the success of the mission. Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, in its first foray into formal election observation, also deserves much credit for providing the backbone of the mission – sending a senior official to serve as the observer coordinator, and providing funding and staff for the core team. The core team also included logistical and technical consultants from the environmental and infrastructure services company Cardno, and The Asia Foundation.
Tim Meisburger is regional director for elections and political processes for The Asia Foundation. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.
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