The Quality of Democracy in the Pacific: Roland Rich Assesses the State of Elections and Parliaments among the Pacific Islands States

By Rich, Roland | New Zealand International Review, November-December 2003 | Go to article overview
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The Quality of Democracy in the Pacific: Roland Rich Assesses the State of Elections and Parliaments among the Pacific Islands States

Rich, Roland, New Zealand International Review

How can the quality of democracy be judged? One useful method is to have an independent body within each country conduct a democratic assessment using the framework developed by the international Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA). (1) The IDEA framework requires the assessment to reach conclusions on popular control over decisions and on equality between citizens in the exercise of that control. Issues of participation, representativeness, accountability, transparency, responsiveness and solidarity are used as mediating principles to determine the quality of a nation's democracy. Institutional aspects of democracy concerning elections, representative bodies, rule of law and the work of the civil service are also examined. It is this examination of the relationship between values and institutions that provides a strong means of assessing the quality of democracy.

Thus far, New Zealand is the first South Pacific nation to participate in the IDEA initiative. (2) Austria's democracy audit, conducted by the Australian National University, is now underway. Pacific Islands nations may wish to consider their own participation.

Another way to assess the quality of Pacific democracies might be to look at issues such as longevity, resilience, participation and institutional integrity. While these are not the only factors involved in such an assessment, they nevertheless provide a useful way of looking at the vigour and quality of democracy. Comparing the Pacific with other regions of the world also provides a useful perspective.

Pacific Islands nations emerged from the decolonisation process with political systems based on Western models of representative democracy. Many of these countries are now completing their third and fourth decades of independence under a system of elected representative government. Tonga aside, representative democracy in the South Pacific has fared relatively well and can be said to have embedded itself as the norm. A whole new generation of islanders has grown up knowing only the democratic process as the form of government and thus in terms of the longevity of democracy, the South Pacific compares favourably with other regions of the world such as Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Importantly, South Pacific countries have been able to overcome the passing from power of the founding leader at the time of independence, the point at which many newly independent states have reverted to authoritarian forms of government.

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There is, however, a question mark about the resilience of South Pacific democracy. The most serious departures from democratic processes have occurred in Fiji and the Solomon Islands in recent times where there have been violent interruptions of the democratic way. Resort to political violence casts a shadow over the region and detracts from the regional commitment to democracy. Fiji has reestablished electoral democracy but, from the point of view of consolidating a democratic political culture, the benefits of longevity have been compromised by the uncertainty caused by violence and ethnic division in politics. The Solomon Islands is struggling to reassert the power of electoral democracy over the power of the gun. Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Vanuatu have faced issues of secession, political assassination and internal military threats, but are continuing to demonstrate the resilience needed to overcome such crises with their democratic forms of government intact.

The situation with regard to participation of the people in the democratic process is mixed. Elections in the South Pacific are robustly contested affairs, often throwing up surprise results. Candidates work hard to attract votes and this level of competition puts pressure on candidates to enthuse people about the political process. Although it is a blunt means of measuring popular participation, voter turnout as a percentage of registered voters provides a useful comparative guide, though allowance needs to be made for those few countries including Australia and (more recently) Fiji that have compulsory voting.

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