On 17 September, Fiji goes to the polls for the first time in eight years. This is a notable step forward given that, when I spoke to people in Suva a year ago, they were still phrasing things in terms of 'IF the election happens'. With the first pre-polling stations having opened a few days ago, that 'if' has become a very definite and proximate 'when'.

Assurances have been given both by Rear Admiral Bainimarama and by Brigadier-General Tikoitoga, the new commander of the Fijian military, that the results of the election will be respected. If these promises can be taken on faith then the question is not if Fiji will return to democracy, but how well the transition will be managed.

The critics of the Bainimarama Government have always demanded elections for Fiji, but also that those elections should be free and fair. In that regard Fiji's outlook is mixed.

Prominent experts, including the Deputy Head of the EU delegation to the Pacific, believe that the results on the polling day will reasonably reflect the will of the people. As far as the vote itself goes, that is likely to be true. Despite reports of at least one case of voters being defrauded, widespread blunt-force cheating probably won't be an issue. The ballot boxes aren't likely to be stuffed, there is no evidence that voters have been disenfranchised and I would not expect to see intimidation at polling stations. Fijian citizens who cast their vote can feel safe that it will go to whomever they select on the ballot paper and that they will be able to make their choice safely.

So far, so good. By world standards of elections after prolonged military rule, Fiji is doing well.

However, a truly free and fair election requires more than the absence of extra ballots stuffed into the box. Yes, voters need to be free to make their choice on the day, but the process by which they reach their decision also needs to be fair. In a free and fair election, political parties compete on as level a playing field as the system can enforce. This is where the election process in Fiji stands on shakier ground.

In recent months there have been a string of controversies and criticisms of the way the Bainimarama Government is handling the transition to democracy. I will touch briefly on three areas: balance of media coverage, participation of NGOs in the electoral process, and issues surrounding candidate nominations.

Media coverage

There has been considerable attention given to the question of media balance in political reporting in Fiji and the role of the government media watchdog, the Media Industry Development Authority (MIDA), in enforcing the Bainimarama Government's media decrees.

There have been repeated accusations by other parties that Bainimarama's Fiji First party has received unfair media advantages. These accusations have been strenuously denied, both by the news outlets and by MIDA. It is always difficult to distinguish between legitimate editorialising and bias. But the fact that these claims have persisted is concerning. Even if issues of media balance are just based on editorialising, the perception of unfairness can be problematic for creating a free and fair election environment. 

NGO participation

The role of NGOs and civil society in the election is also concerning. That civil society is key to democracy hardly needs to be explained, especially in creating a democratic culture in a country that has not seen elections in so long. But not only are foreign funded NGOs prohibited from participating in the election process, domestic NGOs have also been banned from providing election observers. In most developing countries NGOs play a crucial role in preparing a country for an election, shoring up state resources and furthering participatory democratic culture. Given that this ban affects NGOs already operating in Fiji, even the fear of foreign influence is not a convincing justification for the ban. 

Candidate nominations

Fiji's political parties have had to jump through an unusually large number of hoops to nominate candidates. From an Australian perspective the ban on trade unionists and public servants being candidates may seem particularly baffling. But I would argue that there are more worrying trends in the process of candidate accreditation.

There have been a variety of issues, from candidates being reportedly barred for traffic offences to the late introduction of a residency requirement that has disqualified several respected Fijians, including people seconded to RAMSI. What I would focus on is not the changes themselves but the lateness with which they were made. Both measure came into force in August, mere weeks before the election. Campaigning had been going on for months by this point. For an election to be fair, political parties and voters need to have clarity as to who is running for election. Having candidates knocked out at the eleventh hour should be an exceptional matter for a functioning democracy, not one of deliberate state policy.

Given these three issues, as well as other controversies surrounding the elections, is the outlook for Fiji bleak? I would argue that the election is still a step forward. Regardless of controversy, returning Fiji to democracy with less than perfect elections is better than no elections at all. As has been pointed out in The Interpreter before, elections are just the first step to re-establishing Fijian democracy. It is worth accepting some flaws (in the hope that they can be corrected in future) to see Fiji take that step.