MOG will judge if Fijians can vote ‘freely and easily’: Wojciechowski

Paul Wojciechowski

But won’t rule on ‘fairness’, as this is ‘highly subjective’

The Coordinator of the Multinational Observer Group (MOG) observing Fiji’s elections, Australian Paul Wojciechowski, says modern observer missions do not use the words “free and fair” to describe elections.

He says this is because the concept of “fairness” is highly subjective, as demonstrated by the perception of recent elections internationally.

“I think the most important value-add from us will be to pass this judgment on whether the Fijian people were assisted and facilitated to cast their vote freely, and whether the outcome of the election represented broadly the will of the Fijian people,” Wojciechowski has told Islands Business.

Experts say there are an estimated 800 steps between the issuance of the writ for elections on October 31st, and the return of the writ to President Wiliame Katonivere after the result of the December 14th poll. “We had people there at the very start” Wojciechowski says.  “We’ve tried very hard and so far succeeded, in being present, or observing or inquiring about the conduct of every one of those steps.”

“We’re not interfering, but at the same time, we are sort of an impartial observer who asks a lot of questions [and] we have experts on our team have done elections in dozens of countries who are able to say ‘oh, ok, in such and such election this was done, and have you considered doing that?’”

The team is also looking at the broader political, media and legal context in which the election is being held. MOG members have met with most of the political parties, the Fiji Independent Commission Against Corruption (FICAC) and the Human Rights Commission, civil society groups and other stakeholders. They are also looking at the electoral act and recent amendments to the legislation.

“We have a legal expert on our team who’s been drilling down into legislation. So we’ve done a desktop review of all the legislation, including the Constitution, you have to start with the Constitution, that pertains to the conduct of the elections.”

Some of Fiji’s non-government organisations and opposition political patties have expressed concern over legislation passed this year relating to powers granted to the Supervisor of Elections, guidelines on opinion polls, surveys and research; and matching of names for voter registration with those appearing on a person’s birth certificate.

2022 Fiji General Elections
A MOG member in Lau

Without being specific, Wojciechowski says, “What we’re looking for, is just that consistency you know, people are raising the same issue and it becomes a bit of a trend. And again, it’s not just one NGO, mentioning it, it’s actually an issue for a lot of people. Then we drill into it, we look at the legislation, we then check with key institutions to see how they handle it, what they’re views on it are, just to see if there’s anything in the process that perhaps can be improved for next time.”

The MOG has met with Police Commissioner Brigadier General Sitiveni Qiliho to observe the force’s preparedness for the elections. Police will provide security at polling venues. “We asked him about assurances of neutrality of police in the conduct of elections, for example, [he] very, very readily assured us that police are neutral, which of course we knew they would be, they have to be, but I think it’s very important that the MOG meets with senior people like that and asks the question, and get it on the record, so to speak,” says Wojciechowski.

But he confirms no meetings have been held with the Republic of Fiji Military Forces Commander, “as they do not have a direct role in elections”, although how the military conducts voting in barracks and on base will be observed.

The Fiji government has invited 22 countries and two regional organisations, the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat and the Melanesian Spearhead Group, to observe the election. The MOG is being funded by Australia, and co-chaired by Australia, India and Indonesia. It was established at the invitation of the Fiji government, but is operating completely independently, Wojciechowski says.

He notes that the level of cooperation and access from the Fiji Elections Office has been very good, and that Fiji’s electoral system and body “is very highly regarded internationally”.

The MOG will release an interim report soon after the election, and its full report next year.

Wojciechowski says while that report “is in no way binding”, the MOG hopes that some of the recommendations may lead to areas of improvement.

“This is essentially an international community saying we’ve looked at your elections. Look, these are the things we think you could probably improve. It’s up to you. we leave it to your implementation. It’s really your business; you and the people of Fiji.”

Several of the 21 recommendations of the 2018 MOG report were taken up, such as the clear articulation of the start and end of the campaign period. Others, including guidelines for the conduct of Ministers, Members of Parliament and the bureaucracy when the government is in caretaker mode, were not. This has been contentious, as it has raised concerns over undue advantage for incumbent ministers.

Fiji’s last election in 2018 had a participation rate of 72%, which Wojciechowski says is pretty high for a non-compulsory system where there are logistical and weather challenges.