Fiji's First Step


Fiji has taken a step in the right direction, but the journey ahead is fraught with difficulties. As the saying goes, ‘The longest journey in life begins with the first step’. And this is Fiji’s first step, says Professor Brij V Lal, in this exclusive interview with the Diplomatist

Could you please give us a sense of the historic significance of Fiji’s first elections in eight years?

The 2014 general elections were historic for a number of reasons. They were held eight years after the then Commodore Frank Bainimarama overthrew a democratically elected government in a military coup, and under a new constitution decreed into existence in 2013. A new electoral system, Open List Proportional Representation System, with one person one vote irrespective of ethnicity, returned Commodore Bainimarama’s party, Fiji First with 33 of the 50 seats in the House of Representatives. Its nearest rival was the Social Democratic Liberal Party supported mainly by indigenous Fijians, which won 15 seats and the National Federation Party, principally based into Indo-Fijian community, won three seats. Nearly 80 percent of the Indo-Fijians, however, voted for Bainimarama’s party. This was because Bainimarama promised to address the grievances of the poorer sections of the community and because they feared reprisals from indigenous Fijian nationalists if he lost power. He was seen as their guardian and benefactor. Also important was Bainimarama’s commitment to end racial discrimination and promote equal citizenship. If Bainimarama succeeds, he will have broken away from Fiji’s past obsessed with racial politics. That is why the election is potentially historic.

Do you believe that the election will be able to restore democracy to the south Pacific nation of 900,000? How can Fiji return to peace and harmony after the turmoil of the coups?

Return to parliamentary democracy is likely to see the return of investor confidence. Fiji is a pivotal nation in the South Pacific, the home of many regional and international organisations. It cannot be ignored. Since the 2006 coup, it has demonstrated an ambition to be the leader of the smaller island nations. To that end, it wants an end to the dominance of Australia and New Zealand in the region. The sentiment is understandable, but the reality is that Australia and New Zealand cannot be ignored. Their financial contributions sustain many regional institutions and initiatives. Careful diplomacy is needed to heal past wounds and mend broken fences. If that is realised; economic improvement will follow.

What are the circumstances that led to the last coup? Why do you think Fiji Indians extended support to the former coup leader?

Fiji has had four coups in the last 20 years, leading to the formation of what might be called a ‘coup culture’. Rationale for each coup varied. In 1987, it was ostensibly to stop Indo-Fijian dominance of politics of the country. It was carried out in the name of protecting the indigenous community, but the actual reasons were more complex. Fundamentally, race was used as a scapegoat for other interests and agendas, including the protection of the Fijian elite used to ruling the country as if it was their right to do so. Elections were welcomed as long as they kept returning them to power. In 2006, Bainimarama’s rationale was ending corruption in the country, but in fact, it was about protecting his own career. Subsequently, he adopted more grand reasons for carrying out the coup, such as creating a perfect democracy, but these were justifications after the fact. One certainly hopes that the coup culture will end.

As I have indicated, many Indo-Fijians supported Bainimarama largely for reasons of self-preservation. But the long term future of the Indo-Fijian community rests in working cooperatively with the indigenous community, now nearly 60 percent of the population. Banking on the whims and fancies of one man is not a good insurance policy. Bainimarama may genuinely believe in multiracial and equal citizenship, but it is very doubtful if his philosophy is shared by many in his own party. There is no evidence that the military, 99 percent indigenous Fijian, supports it. And some of the leading figures in Bainimarama’s party were leading architects of previous coups, such as Inoke Kubuabola, the Foreign Minister. But whatever happens, Indo-Fijians will continue to emigrate, mostly to Australia, New Zealand and North America. They now constitute around 32 percent of the population, which is likely to decline significantly over the next decade or so.

Do you believe that Fiji will be back to the Commonwealth fold as a reward for its credible transition to civilian, constitutional democracy?

The international community has stamped the recent elections as free and fair. This will pave the way for Fiji’s re-admission to the councils of the international community, including the Commonwealth. But Fiji is in no hurry; it will return on its own terms, seeking an enlarged role for itself. Fiji has returned to constitutional democracy, but it is a very fragile democracy. The real power in the new government is in the hands of one man, Bainimarama’s closest colleague Aiya Sayed Khaiyum, who is Minister of Finance, Trade, Tourism, Public Enterprises and Minister for the Public Service. He effectively controls the entire government machinery – fragile democracy and perhaps guided democracy. And it has to be remembered the military, rather than an elected parliament, is charged with safeguarding the welfare of the nation. It is the guardian of the constitution, not the peoples’ elected representatives.

Looking ahead, how can the country strengthen other elements of democracy such as a free media, independent judiciary and active civil society?

Bainimarama has promised to continue on the path he charted out. In some respects, that will be good, as there will be emphasis on progressive social and economic reform. But it also means that many of the draconian decrees he authorised will remain in the books. The rights of the trade unions will continue to be trampled upon. The media will be pliant, and compliant. Contrary narratives to the government will continue to be deprived of oxygen. Democracy will come to Fiji at a price. Fiji has taken a step in the right direction, but the journey ahead is fraught with difficulties. As the saying goes, ‘The longest journey in life begins with the first step’. And this is Fiji’s first step.

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