Fiji: when is a political party not a political party?

When the military regime says it isn't, it appears. The pretence that Fiji is returning to democracy gets thinner by the month, and a return to full membership of the Commonwealth or Pacific Islands Forum looks further away than ever.

Freedom of association and freedom of speech have suffered yet more blows over the last weekend...

In December, the Fijian military dictatorship seized, shredded and burned the draft constitution drawn up after extensive consultation by the commission they themselves had appointed. Then, in January, they announced they would present their own draft constitution to a hand-picked national assembly by the end of the month. We're still waiting.

Partly in response, the Fijian trade union movement announced its intention to establish a political party to contest the elections due for 2014, and within a week, the regime had issued new, draconian rules on the registration of political parties, and promptly banned trade union (and employer) representatives from even joining them, let alone standing as candidates.

The new rules require political parties to pay a registration fee of $5k, which is a lot in a country where 70% live below the UN poverty line. But even more draconian is the requirement that parties demonstrate that they have 5,000 paid up members, in a country of less than a million. If that rule applied in Britain, all political parties would be banned.

Last Saturday (16 February), they've gone further, widening the restrictions on union and employer involvement in politics, and making it illegal to report about a political party in the news media unless it has met the requirements of the new regulations. Mentioning a political party that is, effectively, banned under these decrees could lead to a $50k fine and 5 years in jail. Tad over the top?

The regime's puppet party registration body also announced this week that 14 of Fiji's 17 current political parties had failed to meet the new test for registration, leaving almost no one able to contest the promised 2014 elections.

And that appears to be the point. So scared of opposition from the people of Fiji, military dictator and so-called Prime Minister Commodore Vorege Bainimarama seems to be dead set on holding an election in 2014 with himself as the only candidate. Even so, he might not scrape home...

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