The first lines of Article One of the Commonwealth Charter read, “We recognise the inalienable right of individuals to participate in democratic processes, in particular through free and fair elections in shaping the society in which they live.” The free ability of Commonwealth citizens to meaningfully participate in the political shaping of their society is central to the values of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth is often criticised for not standing up for many of the values it claims to uphold, from protecting LGBTI rights to taking action on alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka and yet, tThe Commonwealth has shown that on occasion it is not willing to compromise on constitutional and democratic government. Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Fiji and Nigeria have all been suspended by the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group at various times for compromising their democratic credentials. Most recently Fiji was suspended in 2006 from the Councils of the Commonwealth following a coup. It was fully suspended from the Commonwealth in 2009 after failing to agree a timetable for holding elections.
On Wednesday Fiji has the chance to re-engage its citizens in shaping its political future in the first general election since the 2006 coup. In March the Commonwealth reacted to Fiji’s announcement of the election by deciding that, “Fiji's current full suspension from the Commonwealth should be changed to suspension from the Councils of the Commonwealth, thus permitting Fiji once again to participate in a range of Commonwealth activities, including the Commonwealth Games, recognising the role of sport in bringing people together”. The group also declared that it wished to see Fiji’s full reinstatement as a member of the Commonwealth family, “through the restoration of constitutional civilian democracy following credible elections”. The elections see the leader of the coup, Rear-Admiral Frank Bainimarama, leading his new party Fiji-First which is ahead in polls. Local and international media are speculating as to whether his party will get enough votes to form a majority government or whether it will need to form a coalition. Fiji-First’s main opponent is the Social Democratic Liberal Party which draws its support mainly from the indigenous iTaukei ethnic group. Against a backdrop of concerns about the protection of civil liberties, Australia is leading an international team to monitor the elections.
Fiji isn’t the only Pacific member of the Commonwealth with elections this week as New Zealand takes to the polls on Saturday for their general election. The incumbent National Party, led by Prime Minister John Key, is set to win with polls giving it a substantial lead over the Labour and Green parties. However, the National Party has been dogged by recent political scandals as allegations of a ‘dirty tricks’ campaign and inappropriate links with a controversial blogger emerged, eventually leading to a cabinet resignation. Regardless of political scandals and the fact that a change of government is unlikely, these elections are still an important opportunity for New Zealanders to participate in politics. Aaron Hape, Executive Director of Commonwealth Youth New Zealand, commented that these are some of the most important elections in a generation, stating: “Three times the amount of people have already cast an Advanced Vote than at the same point in the previous election, and many of these are young people. Young people realise that if their wants and needs are to be accommodated by government then they know they need to vote with their feet”.
On the other side of the Commonwealth, Scottish voters are asked this week to decide a truly historic question. On Thursday they will be casting their votes in a referendum to decide whether they want Scotland to leave the United Kingdom and become an independent state or remain as part of the 300 year old Union. The formal consequences for the Commonwealth if the UK divides are relatively clear but domestically the effects will be seismic. At a recent press conference, one Member of Parliament described the referendum as one of the most important issues in UK politics in the last 300 years and one that will dramatically affect England, Northern Ireland and Wales, regardless of their absence from the vote. As politicians and the public awaken to how close this referendum will be it is likely to prompt new debates in the UK. If Scotland does decide to become independent negotiations between the Scottish and Westminster governments will dominate politics and those governments must ensure that this process continues to be characterised by transparency and accountability. If Scotland decides to remain alongside England, Wales and Northern Ireland then it is likely that questions of devolution and what UK identity means, will resurface.
For citizens of Scotland, Fiji and New Zealand a chance to shape their political future is before them... the RCS wishes them happy voting.
Photo by FutUndBeidl