Fiji: Ballot box brings government new legitimacy

Terry Less

In Focus Fiji

Having initially seized power in a coup, Frank Bainimarama has reinvented himself as civilian politician – a move  that saw him legitimately returned to power in last year’s general election. But can he carry the nation with him  as he re-establishes Fiji as a democracy in the eyes of the world?

© Matthias Süßen CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

© Matthias Süßen CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Fiji’s first 45 years as an independent nation have included a good deal of political drama. There have been four coups, the last as recently as 2006, which did not see democracy restored until the 2014 general election. And the Pacific nation’s chequered history even includes the Prime Minister being held hostage by rebels for two months in 2000. That’s on top of the ever-present ethnic tensions between indigenous Fijians and the Indo-Fijians, who are descended from indentured workers brought over from India to work on sugar cane farms.

Fiji became independent in 1970, having been a British protectorate since 1874. The country’s first constitution offered universal suffrage, with guarantees for Fijian land rights, but the detail of the constitution has been the subject of much debate in the intervening years, which has seen it torn up and re-written several times.

Shortly before Fiji’s first coup in 1987, elections had brought victory for a coalition consisting of the National Federation Party (NFP) – the largest Indo-Fijian party – and the Fiji Labour Party (FLP), supported by both ethnic Fijian and Indo-Fijian trade unions. A month later the government was overthrown in a coup led by Lieutenant-Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka, who called for the ethnic Fijian dominance of all future governments. The coup was followed by a period of racial unrest, during which the Great Council of Chiefs attempted to introduce constitutional reforms. Rabuka then led a second coup in September 1987 and in October he declared Fiji a republic. The change of constitutional status meant that Fiji had to reapply to join the Commonwealth, but in light of the undemocratic coup its membership was not renewed (see timeline).

By the late 1990s, Fiji had rejoined the Commonwealth and adopted a new constitution. Following elections in May 1999, FLP leader Mahendra Chaudhry became the first Indo-Fijian Prime Minister, promising to defuse ethnic tensions and restore economic growth.

But in May 2000, armed ethnic Fijians, led by George Speight, overthrew the government, occupying the parliament building and taking about 40 hostages – including the Prime Minister. The army once again took control of the country in Fiji’s third coup. Negotiations between the army and the rebels ensued until the deadlock was finally broken in July, when the hostages were released. Speight and some of his supporters were arrested and charged with treason.

The May 2006 general election was won by the United Fiji Party (Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua or SDL). However, in December 2006 the army took control of the government, dismissing the Prime Minister and President, with head of the army Commodore Josaia Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama assuming the presidency. In January 2007 Bainimarama reinstated the President and became interim Prime Minister.

Fiji’s Court of Appeal ruled in April 2009 that the military coup that had ousted the elected government in 2006, and the interim government that followed it, were illegal. But the government refused to stand down and allow elections to take place.

In 2014, Bainimarama finally gave in to domestic and international pressure to hold a general election and restore democracy. He resigned his military position, in order to stand as a civilian in the election, and formed the FijiFirst party. The general election held on 17 September 2014 – the first under a new 2013 constitution – was won by FijiFirst with 59 per cent of votes, so Bainimarama was sworn in as Prime Minister. A multinational observer group decided that the elections were credible and broadly represented the will of the Fijian people.

At his election Bainimarama promised to govern for all Fijians and that his government would not pander to special interest groups, elites or geographical areas of the country. With his newfound electoral legitimacy, Bainimarama has set about improving international relations, with The Economist predicting that Fiji could be ripe for ‘substantial’ foreign investment.

In May this year, it was announced that Fiji had established diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia. In the same month Bainimarama visited Thailand, which led to the signing of an agreement on technical co-operation between the two countries that will see the exchange of experts and collaboration on economic and social development. Bainimarama called the arrangement “a solid platform for both countries to extend our co-operation into other areas of mutual interest”.

In June the government announced that it was trading with more countries than ever before. One of Fiji’s most significant international partners is China. Bainimarama visited the Asian powerhouse earlier this year, with Fiji’s Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum receiving a delegation of Chinese businessmen and women in August. China’s aid programme has seen it provide generous funding to Pacific island nations, as China vies with Australia, New Zealand and the USA for influence in the region. As such, China had already been supporting Fiji, mainly in the form of concessional loans, but the most recent talks could see Chinese investors putting funds into projects in Fiji’s health, agriculture and education sectors, as well as improving infrastructure.

Sayed-Khaiyum says: “The areas in which China can provide aid and expertise are of critical importance to our government and will help us reach our goal of improving these sectors in a sustainable manner.”

Recent tax reforms have also seen the government try to accelerate the economy and foster closer relations with the business community. Faiyaz Koya, Minister for Industry, Trade and Tourism, says: “Government, amongst other things, has reduced and streamlined taxes, provided a range of investment incentives and has begun making processes business friendly. We have also invested in the development of infrastructure of our roads, ports and airports, and developing a knowledge-based economy.”

The government won international praise when it announced it was ditching the death penalty in February. The death penalty had been dropped from Fijian civilian law after George Speight was initially sentenced to death for his attack on the government in 2000. His sentence was soon commuted to life imprisonment and the death penalty dropped from the statute books. But until this year, military law still allowed the execution of those involved in leading a coup. Opposition politicians had argued that retention of the death penalty would deter future coups, but the vote went in favour of the government.

Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma visited Fiji in September to discuss areas in which the Commonwealth is partnering with Fiji, including oceans management, trade, debt management, youth development and sports.

Sharma says: “The Commonwealth has an ongoing programme of assistance to Fiji in the area of maritime boundaries and natural resource management. Previous work in this area has included a bilateral maritime boundary treaty between Fiji and Tuvalu and support to conclude a maritime boundary agreement with Tuvalu and France. The Commonwealth is currently assisting Fiji through a multi disciplinary team, with a UN submission to extend its outer continental shelf.”

However, not everything is rosy on the international relations front. Australia and New Zealand were criticised ahead of the Pacific Islands Forum in September for their ‘unambitious’ emissions-reduction targets. The two countries – the largest in the region – also forced a climate declaration that was to be agreed at the meeting to be watered down. Small island states in the Pacific are seeing rising sea levels threaten their existence, making climate change one of the key issues for the region. Citing Australia’s inaction on climate change – and Australia and New Zealand’s ‘interference’ in the declaration – Bainimarama decided to boycott the forum, instead sending his Foreign Minister to the meeting.

With the next general election due in three years’ time, Bainimarama will have to take care to carry the majority of the electorate with him in his decisions on both domestic and international politics if he is to retain power legitimately in the long term.


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