PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT
Pacific Islands Development Program/East-West Center
FIJI COULD LEARN FROM NEW CALEDONIA GAINS
By Jon Fraenkel
SUVA, Fiji (Fiji Times, July 2) – One of the biggest issues during the current Fiji government has been the constitutional requirement to form a multi-party cabinet.
For the first four years of this government, Fiji’s highest courts were constantly addressing legal issues concerning the requirement that the Prime Minister invite all parties with over 10 percent of seats into his cabinet.
Was the Labour Party entitled to participate? How many ministerial positions should Labour hold? Did the Prime Minister have the right to choose which MPs took which positions?
Since November 2004, this issue has slipped off the political agenda (perhaps making this a good time for less hot-headed discussion). The Labour Party halted its efforts to resolve the matter through the courts in November 2004, accepting instead a position on the opposition benches.
Controversy over the proposed Reconciliation Bill have instead occupied center stage in 2005.
But the multi-party cabinet issue is bound to re-emerge and to figure prominently again after the next general election.
What is less well known in Fiji is that one of our closest neighbours, New Caledonia, also has provisions for multi-party cabinet. But, unlike the Fiji experience, politics in New Caledonia have taken a new turn since the violent conflict of the 1980s, with formerly antagonistic political parties participating together in government under the new power-sharing arrangements.
Fiji and New Caledonia have other similarities. Both are ethnically bipolar countries, with substantial indigenous and settler or settler-descended peoples that together make up the bulk of the population. Both experienced violent conflict during the 1980s, culminating in a military coup in Fiji in 1987 and over 50 killed in New Caledonia by the end of 1988. Both countries subsequently settled on compacts aimed at resolving those conflicts (the 1997 constitution in Fiji, the 1998 Noumea Accord in New Caledonia).
In both cases, those compacts gave considerable recognition to indigenous rights, entailed substantial programmes of affirmative action or rebalancing for disadvantaged communities and, most significantly, aimed at encouraging a transition towards multi-party or multi-ethnic government.
In Fiji, the new constitution required the Prime Minister to invite all parties with over 10 percent of the seats in parliament to participate in cabinet. In New Caledonia, the Noumea Accord provided for a government ‘elected by the Congress on a proportional basis’. The ‘Interior Rules’ of the New Caledonia Congress puts this provision into practice by providing that all parties with more than six seats in Congress are entitled to positions in cabinet.
Both countries have experienced considerable litigation around the cabinet entitlements issue, although in New Caledonia legal battles have also centred on the election of the President and Vice President and the issue of ‘collegiality’ (or cooperation) in government decision-making.
Unlike Fiji, the main issue in New Caledonia during the violent conflicts of the 1980s was independence. The majority of the 44.1 percent Melanesian population wanted to loosen ties with France, perhaps in the direction of ‘free association’ status similar to that which the Cook Islands has with New Zealand. Most of the 34.1 percent European population wanted to retain strong ties with France, as did most of the smaller minorities.
At the first elections held after the introduction of the Noumea Accord in 1999, the main settler-backed party, the Rassemblement pour la Calédonie dans la Republique (RPCR – Rally to keep New Caledonia in the French Republic) won 24 of the 54 seats. Its main opponent was the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste [FLNKS – The Kanak National and Socialist Liberation Front] which won 12 seats in Congress The allied Parti de Libération Kanak (PALIKA – Party of Kanak Liberation) obtained a further 6 seats.
The RPCR’s Jean Lèques consequently became President (equivalent to Fiji’s Prime Minister), but the FLNKS-PALIKA obtained 4 positions in the 11-member cabinet. The big controversy was about the Vice Presidency. The RPCR, at first, controversially gave this position to a breakaway party led by former FLNKS leaders, called the Fédération des Comités de Co-ordination des Indépendantistes (FCCI).
Other Kanak leaders protested that this was against the spirit of the Noumea Accord, and repeatedly took cases before the Administrative Tribunal complaining of lack of ‘collegiality’ in government. The RPCR leaders insisted on ‘majority rule’ in executive decision-making.
On 3rd April 2001, a new RPCR-led government, now with Pierre Frogier at the helm, chose the PALIKA’s Déwé Gorodney as Vice President, satisfying at least one of the objections of the Kanak-backed parties.
In May 2004, New Caledonia went to the polls again. This time, the RPCR saw its share of the vote fall from 38.8 to 24.4 percent. It lost 8 of its 24 seats in Congress. Instead, the newly formed Avenir Ensemble (AE – The Future Together), bringing together several RPCR dissidents and other setter-backed opposition groups, obtained 16 seats in Congress.
The pro-independence parties performed strongly in the Northern Province and in the Loyalty Islands, but poorly in the Southern Province. They obtained 16 seats in Congress. The eventual result gave both the AE and RPCR 4 positions in cabinet each while the pro-independence parties had 3 ministerial portfolios. This time the process of distribution of cabinet portfolios occurred much more amicably.
The big controversy was between AE and the RPCR over the election of a President. The RPCR eventually compromised, with the result that Avenir Ensemble’s Marie-Noëlle Thémereau was elected President and PALIKA’s Déwé Gorodey was returned as Vice President.
For the first time, two women were in top positions at the helm of the New Caledonian executive. The new government proclaimed for itself the goal of achieving a more effective style of power sharing than its predecessors.
There are some big differences between New Caledonia’s power-sharing provisions and those in Fiji’s 1997 constitution, which help to explain why those in New Caledonia have been more successful.
Fiji’s government under the 1997 constitution has to be formed twice.
First, the President offers the premiership to the ‘member of the House of Representatives who, in the President’s opinion, can form a government that has the confidence of the house’ (1997 Constitution S. 98). So the first task of an aspiring Prime Minister is to assemble a coalition with majority support in parliament.
Only after this has been accomplished is the new Prime Minister required to reform his or her government in accordance with section 99 of the constitution by inviting all parties with more than 10 percent of seats into cabinet.
This inevitably builds tensions into the process of government formation, unless one party has an absolute majority.
As witnessed after the 2001 Fiji polls, the SDL commanded a majority on the floor of the house only by entering a coalition with the CAMV and several independents. When first the Court of Appeal and then the Supreme Court made it clear that Labour was entitled to participate, the SDL might have had to drop its coalition partner and potentially lose its majority in the house.
Instead, Prime Minister Qarase eventually offered to form a 36-member cabinet, large enough to retain the SDL-CAMV coalition and offer some token cabinet positions to the FLP. Most agreed that a 36-member cabinet was far too large for a small country like Fiji.
New Caledonia’s government is directly elected by the Congress (parliament), although portfolios are allocated by the President. After each general election, members gather in parliament. First, they decide how many ministers will make up the government (somewhere between 5 and 11). Second, all groups with more that six seats gain the right to proportionally participate in cabinet.
The Fiji rules leave the small parties with less than 10 percent of the seats outside cabinet (although the latest Supreme Court decision left some uncertainty about this). New Caledonia’s rules are smarter. Small parties (with less than six seats) can combine with larger parties to boost cabinet entitlements (or to secure positions under the wing of the larger parties). Only after the cabinet is formed does the process of selection of the President (the equivalent to Fiji’s prime minister) occur.
Fiji’s provisions reflect the way they were introduced as an afterthought once the fundamental provisions of the 1997 constitution were already in place. The Constitutional Review Commission (the Reeves Report) had recommended the retention of a Westminster-style system, with a government and opposition, resting its hopes for the formation of multi-ethnic government on the introduction of the new alternative vote system. Only when these recommendations came before a Joint Parliamentary Select Committee was the multi-party cabinet provision added. But many elements of the Westminster system remain in Fiji’s constitution.
The other big difference between the two countries is that New Caledonia uses a list proportional representation electoral system, whereas Fiji uses a highly complex variant of the Australian-style alternative vote system. For electoral purposes, New Caledonia is divided into three provinces – the North, the South and the Loyalty Islands. These elect respectively 15, 32 and 7 members to the New Caledonian Congress (parliament). Parties put up lists of candidates and voters simply lodge a single vote endorsing a party slate. The number of MPs elected from a party depends on its share of the vote. For example, if a party gets 50 percent of the vote in the Southern Province it will get 16 of those seats (i.e., 50 percent of the 32 Southern Province seats). Having a proportional system for elections makes good sense if you have a proportional system for selecting the cabinet.
Proportional representation systems tend to encourage the emergence of smaller political parties, reflecting different shades of opinion. For that reason, they also tend to result in coalition governments, which fit better with requirements for power-sharing in cabinet.
The other big advantage with proportional representation systems is with regard to the election of women MPs. Most Pacific Island countries have appallingly low levels of women’s representation. But the French territories, including both New Caledonia and French Polynesia (Tahiti) have laws which require political parties to alternate men and women on their lists of candidates. As a result, both territories have close to 50 percent of women parliamentarians.
Finally, New Caledonia’s arrangements are more flexible than those in Fiji. The Noumea Accord (which has a legal status similar to a constitutional document) only sets out the principle of multi-party cabinet. It only says is that the government must be ‘elected by the Congress on a proportional basis’. How that is done is left up to the Congress. And the Administrative Tribunal functions only in an advisory capacity. It is up to the politicians to accept or reject that advice. There are mandatory aspects of the New Caledonian institutions, but there is also a healthy recognition that not everything can be set down in law and that, ultimately, the success of the Noumea Accord system rests on cooperation between former adversaries.
The big controversy in the international literature on power sharing is whether mandatory or informal methods work best. Most agree that, in ethnically divided societies, some form of power sharing is the best solution. But mandatory (or legally obligatory) power sharing systems, like those in Lebanon or Cyprus or Northern Ireland in the early 1970s can build impossible rigidities into the process of government formation. Most agree that, if possible, the best option is the more flexible informal type of arrangement. But, if so, the big question is whether the majority party will have the good sense and broader foresight to voluntarily enter a partnership with the minority party.
In New Caledonia, its still too early to tell whether political parties will be able to develop a new style of partnership, but the early signs are that they have gone a lot further in this respect than has Fiji.
Jon Fraenkel is a Senior Research Fellow at the Pacific Institute of Advanced Studies in Development & Governance at the University of the South Pacific.
July 6, 2005
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