Fiji Election: The Long Road To Democracy

Posted September 16, 2014 14:40:23

Perilous road to democracy>> Photo: A democracy dependent for its survival on the goodwill of one person is full of peril. (File photo: AAP)

As Fiji prepares to go to the polls tomorrow, there is hope for some semblance of democracy. But under the expected rule of Frank Bainimarama, the country would enjoy a fragile peace, writes Brij Lal.

Fiji goes to the polls tomorrow, eight years after the military, led by Frank Bainimarama, overthrew Laisenia Qarase's multiparty government in 2006.

Since then, Bainimarama has been "interim prime minister" and Fiji has been without a parliament. The country has been ruled by decree, most of which cannot be challenged in any court of law.

There has been strict media censorship for much of that time, and violation of human rights too. The independence of the judiciary has widely been called into question and there has been little transparency in the conduct of government.

The election, one hopes, will be the first essential step on a long and difficult road back to parliamentary democracy and accountable governance.

The election will take place under electoral provisions of a new constitution decreed by Bainimarama in 2013, jettisoning the recommendations of the Ghai Commission for a new, more inclusive one.

For the first time, there will be no racial voting.

For much of its history, Fiji's electoral system has been defined not by ideological fault lines but ethnic differences. The different interests of both indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians have served to shape much of the political landscape.

Today, Fiji's political parties are required to have multiracial memberships and there are no seats reserved for any ethnic group, as opposed to the past.

The hope was that a non-racial electoral system would foster non-racial politics. Yet, as the campaign has proceeded, political parties have appealed to their traditional ethnic constituencies even though most parties, with the exception of Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA), the main indigenous Fijian party, have fielded a multiracial slate of candidates. While the aim is to dismantle racial voting, the reality is that voters will still largely choose candidates based on ethnicity. 

Old habits, cultivated over a century, will take a long time to die.

Timeline: from coup to polls

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Track Fiji's eight years under interim prime minister Frank Bainimarama.

Polls show that SODELPA will get a large share of the indigenous Fijian vote. This is not surprising. The party has adopted a strong nationalistic line, and not for no reason. A number of Bainimarama's policies have severely undermined Fijian interests and institutions, such as the dismantling of the Great Council of Chiefs, the umbrella body of the indigenous community since 1874.

Every citizen can now call himself or herself a "Fijian", whereas historically that name was associated with the indigenous community. Fijian land rights, it is claimed, have been endangered. Part of the difficulty is that many fundamental changes were decreed with no consultation whatsoever, especially with principal stakeholders.

But the very thing that has alienated Bainimarama from many traditional Fijians has also endeared him to others for whom his rhetoric of equality and merit is appealing. Many have benefitted from his largesse: bridges built here, roads sealed there, with promises of more good things to come if he is elected.

The threatened demise of traditional institutions is not universally mourned by those who were on the margins but who can now dream of place in the sun for themselves. But whether the support is firmly committed or contingent remains to be seen, most probably the latter. People in Fiji know which side of the bread is buttered.

Indo-Fijians, polls show, will vote for Bainimarama's Fiji First Party in very large numbers. There are at least three reasons for this.

Bainimarama's public and much-touted embracing of a non-racial vision has touched a chord with many Indo-Fijian voters long at the receiving end of Fijian nationalist politics. Whether Bainimarama's enthusiasm for multiracialism is shared widely by his own party, which includes many previous supporters of coups and political instability in the country, is an open question. But the illusion of equality is appealing. Its realisation is another matter.

Secondly, Bainimarama, campaigning on the public purse, has pitched his campaign at the "average" voter struggling to make ends meet in difficult economic times. Nearly half the population of Fiji lives below the poverty line, and many residents of Fiji's mushrooming squatter settlements are Indo-Fijians. To them free school bus fares, abolition of school fees, and free water supply mean much more than the principles of democracy and the practice of transparent governance. Their eyes are firmly focused on the brutal realities on the ground.

There can be no peace if a very large section of the community feels disaffected and alienated from the body politic.

And thirdly, many Indo-Fijians see Bainimarama as the bulwark between them and a Fijian nationalist backlash. Among the most prominent supporters of the regime are Indo-Fijian academic leaders, business people and moral leaders of the community. Without him at the helm, many genuinely fear they might be done for. No one wants to revisit the chaos and violence of previous coups, and Bainimarama loses few opportunities to remind the people of his critical role. The army will be in line and arsonists kept at bay as long as he is in charge.

On present predictions, Bainimarama's Fiji First Party is on target to get the largest numbers in parliament, but whether he gets an outright majority, as he insists he will get, is another matter. If he does not, would he form a coalition government with another party? His track record shows no signs of an ability to comprise or forge a consensus. The cut and thrust of politics is not his cup of tea, or bowl of yaqona (kava). It is either my way, or the highway.

If he doesn't get his way, he might well say that his mission is not complete, the reforms he has put in place are jeopardised and he will continue to lead the country until "people get it right". He is on the public record as saying that Fiji can't afford him not leading the country.

There is another scenario. The military has been given a guardian role in the constitution, the ultimate guarantor of the wellbeing of the nation. In most democracies worth their salt, that responsibility rests with the parliament. A number of political parties have indicated their wish to revisit parts of the constitution to make it more democratic. The military could, citing its constitutional role, step in to prevent that possibility and ask the Bainimarama regime to continue.

If Bainimarama wins, these questions will become moot. But a democracy dependent for its survival on the goodwill of one person is full of peril. There can be no peace if a very large section of the community feels disaffected and alienated from the body politic.

At best, Fiji under Bainimarama, will enjoy a fragile peace.

Professor Brij Lal researches Fiji history and politics at the Australian National University's >College of Asia and the Pacific. View his full profile here.

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Topics: foreign-affairs, government-and-politics, elections, community-and-society

Comments (7)

Comments for this story are closed.

  • Rashid:

    16 Sep 2014 5:52:28pm

    With estimated third of the population is composed of the immigrants, mainly Indian brought in by the British during the colonial days, it seems that

    Bainimarama?s vision of Fiji based on non-ethnic citizenry is democratically so bold as to be impossible to achieve.

    It would be a miracle of sort if in the eight years that he was at the helm; he has managed to change the mindset of the people to become homogeneous Fijians and to accept diversity in harmony.

    The economic disparity in the population must be a huge hurdle to overcome. It will need international good will, particularly of the Australian and New Zealand governments to see it through. For that they will have to accept the fact that Democracy has many definitions to be compatible with the history of the country.

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  • Algernon:

    16 Sep 2014 6:21:11pm

    Didn't Fiji have two democratically elected governments overtaken in a military coups all because the governments didn't kowtow to the chiefs.

    As far as I'm aware there are more non ethnic Fijians in Fiji than ethnic Fijians.

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  • Patrick Todd :

    16 Sep 2014 7:57:19pm

    Mr Lal has got a few things wrong ... First the great council of chiefs ... During colonial rule here the chiefs were sent to Oxford or other similar institutions to further their education ... In fact my grandparents chaperoned the young Mara as he travelled to England. Since Fiji gained independence in 1970 that practice ceased. Many villages and mataqali lease their land. For that the village was supposed to benefit from that income. That did not happen while the chiefs set themselves up in town with their flash house and their pajeros and doled out 50 cents per year to each of the remaining villagers while they lived high on the hog in town.

    Mr Garase was not elected fair and square ... Many many instances of ballot papers that had been interfered with were reported. Mr Garase also went around the islands pre his election on a government ship handing out things like shovels and chain saws and even outboard motors that were paid for with government funds and - for example - say a shovel that any Fijian could buy at any hardware store for - say $20 -cost Mr Garase more like $40 - a few of the Indo-Fijian hardware shop owners were in on this. When this was exposed in the press of the day the offending hardware store had what we call a Gujurati Stocktake and burned the building down. This is just the tip of the iceberg of Mr Garase and his nefarious activities ... He was very deeply involved in meetings with shady characters at 0100 hours just before the very bad 2000 coup ... I could go on and on about Mr Garase.

    To appease the Fijian people Mr Garase also attempted to introduce the goligoli bill - a sort of lose term that referred to the ownership of the reef and surrounding waters. To this day the indigenous Fijians are having big squabbles over just which mataqali owns which "resource" ... It would have caused huge problems for the tourist industry - the only industry that is bringing substantial money into the country not to mention the continuation of the squabbles between the matagalis all around the country.

    There was not that much suppression of the press and what the press was supposed to have suffered was brought about by their continued printing of out and out lies ... The Murdoch owned Fiji Times at the time did such a thing over and over ... I was here .. I read their tripe ... Many many times.

    And as for human rights violations ... Oh please! ... My poor old 78 year old mother suffered far worse at the hands of the Australian Government than anything Frank Bainimarama doled out.

    About the only thing Mr Lal got right was stating that Frank Bainimarama is not a politician ... Yep! He got that right but at least Frank is trying to do the right thing for his and my country and not lining his back pocket or pandering to the wishes of big business.

    The Australian press has never given him a fair go and have continually attempted to portray him as some sort of des

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    • Philip Ewen:

      17 Sep 2014 7:19:50am

      The myopic view of the situation in Fiji as seen from the Australian and New Zealand government does not achieve anything. Those governments are only interested in reinforcing their own brand of democracy so as to reinforce those governmental structures. The stark lack of multiculturalism and distorted land ownership is the biggest underlying problem that this election is not bringing in focus, apart from canning the golli golli (ownership of sea resources) by Indigenous Fijians in 2006 and other initiatives mentioned in your comment. Less than 10% of land is available outside 'clan' indigenous Fijian ownership. Much good farming land lies in a waste of weeds due to this skewed land ownership. A Fijian community has to just sell an Island or lease some land to make money (if they could agree amongst themselves in itself a rare feat). Would not some poor non Indigenous Fijians love to be in that situation! The irony is this bias was set up by English rule by creating the great council of chiefs to ensure white plantation farmers could take as much wealth as possible whilst exploiting Indian indentured labour. The outcome of all this is many villages are still run like a feudal system creating their own self inflicted burden under poor leadership of often greedy chiefs or head men and hence resources are under utilized by those poorly motivated land owners, whilst the primarily Indian population bear the brunt of poverty in this country due to short supply hence expensive land for housing and cultivation.

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  • Realist:

    17 Sep 2014 8:26:46am

    Here is another piece of ABC sponsored propoganda pushing an ideological perspective. We had accepted the ABC line until recently when we actually visited Fiji. Guess what? It is prospering. People we spoke to across the community, both Indian and native Fijian are happy. Many of the problems left by the former government have been overcome with roads repaired, new roads being built, other infrastructure under construction, very few empty stores, businesses prospering.

    It was quite remarkable in contrast to what we had been led to believe. What is more the Fijians have stood up the aid agencies and much of the progress has been made without their assistance. What a contrast to elsewhere in the Pacific.

    The ABC would be better served producing some factual assessment rather than this partisan nonsense.

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  • Cam:

    17 Sep 2014 1:54:18pm

    On Wednesday 17 September 2014, the Fijian people finally get to have a say about the future of their country. It has been eight long, trying years since Frank Bainimarama's military coup in December 2006.

    During this time poverty has increased from 30 percent to 50 percent of the population. Media censorship has meant only the military regime's voice has non-critically been heard. The suppression of free speech and free association - often with violent and severe extrajudicial punishment - has prevented many Fijians from speaking out. A state of 'rule by decree' has been the norm.

    A number of Fijians who dare to speak out do so from the safety of Australia and New Zealand. They know only too well what awaits them should they return to their homeland while the regime is still in power.

    Even the registration of Fiji First, Bainimarama's own political party, failed to meet the decrees laid down for others on timing and disclosure, so the regime simply announced a 'new' decree to circumvent this. The Attorney-General, and Fiji First's general-secretary Aiyaz Khaiyum, is the Minister in charge of elections, and has appointed his own nephew to be Supervisor of Elections.

    There have already been a number of reports from opposition political parties expressing concern about pre-poll voting. And in a country with a voting population of around 500,000 people, 750,000 ballot papers have been printed.

    Since Fiji's first coup in 1987 up until the latest in 2006, whoever has controlled the military has controlled Fiji. Disturbingly, Bainimarama's self-created 2013 Constitution keeps the military at the heart of domestic matters, rather than being solely for the defence of the country.

    Those of us wishing for free and fair elections, and indeed a democratic Fiji able to fulfil it's potential as a powerhouse of Pacific island nations, want to see an end to the 'coup culture' that has so decimated these islands and their people.

    We hope the election result will see the military regime removed and normal government start the task of rebuilding Fiji. It is worrying however, that in reported comments from a recent trip to New Zealand, and in Fiji only two days ago, Bainimarama has suggested that if the vote doesn't go his way, Fiji may not be rid of its 'coup culture' just yet.

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    • Realist:

      17 Sep 2014 3:57:55pm

      Your claims of 'poverty increasing' come from where exactly? That is not the impression gained from first hand experience and certainly wasn't stated by anyone we spoke to.

      The comparison between Fiji and other Pacific nations is stark and it is not Fiji that is struggling!

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Source : http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-09-16/lal-fiji-election:-the-long-road-to-democracy/5746848

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