Fiji: Towards a Robust and Vibrant Democracy

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Aiming to boost bilateral trade between the two countries, South Africa showcased the technologies related to food processing and agriculture sector in India, in the first ever 'South Africa Week'. The South Africa Week was intended to further promote the bilateral trade between the two nations.

Fiji’s recent national election, the first in eight years, was remarkably successful in terms of voter turnout and organisation. It signalled a peaceful transition from military to civilian rule, albeit with the 2006 coup instigator, Commodore Voreqe ‘Frank’ Bainimarama, becoming the new elected prime minister. His clear mandate to lead Fiji represents a choice freely made by the electorate, based largely on popular measures such as elimination of tuition fees and bus fares for children attending school. All Pacific island nations now have elected governments. Australia, India and Indonesia spearheaded a multinational observation that brought some 100 observers from as far away as Turkey. I served as head of delegation for the US, and was impressed by the conduct of the election.

Changes in the Constitution

Fiji’s new constitution, adopted before the election by decree, contains a number of elements that are significantly different from previous constitutions. One of the most positive features is the move away from a structure that had previously encouraged ethnic voting, essentially reserving a certain proportion of parliamentary seats for indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians. Under the new system of governance, 50 members of parliament are elected nationwide. Unlike most democracies, the new constitution includes immunity provisions for all those who participated in the coup. Equally striking is the elimination of the Great Council of Chiefs, a group that heretofore was seen by many as an important link to Fiji’s rich culture and traditions.

It is highly unlikely Fiji’s military officers would have permitted an election were they not confident of their candidate winning decisively. And to be sure, the election campaign provided numerous advantages of incumbency to the interim military government which, for example, circumscribed media reporting, civil society activities, and freedom of assembly. Still, to a degree that had not previously been tolerated, the regime opened itself to criticism and public debate. Bainimarama’s 2006 coup was launched under the pretext of massive corruption and the ‘doctrine of necessity.’ What proved decisive in holding Fiji together since 2006 was a capable and committed public service, which the military, for the most part, gave sufficient freedom to perform their duties. Reliance on tourism revenues and favourable media coverage served to keep human rights abuses to a minimum.

Rise of a Robust Democratic Society

The long awaited elections have now been followed by the convening of parliament and formation of an opposition led by an outspoken woman leader, Ro Teimumu Kepa, who once had been taken into custody by soldiers for speaking her mind. The convening of parliament has opened democratic space for debate and criticism of the government that was heretofore suppressed.

Moreover, the election brought a younger generation of voters into the political process, and has citizens thinking about Fiji’s long-term future. Indeed, approximately one-third of those who registered for the election voted for the very first time.

Fiji’s election was by many measures a success. Yet we should not be lulled into interpreting this as more than one important step in a series of steps on the road to establishing a more robust democratic society. Although Prime Minister Bainimarama has officially retired from his command, the Royal Fiji Military Forces may still believe it is their right to remain engaged in politics. To what degree they will continue to directly and indirectly assert their influence remains an open question.

For the foreseeable future, domestic political stability in Fiji is likely, but it remains unclear if the disbanded Great Council of Chiefs will quietly recede into the landscape or gradually become a source of tension, especially in the rural areas. And the election has not settled long festering land tenure issues or challenges associated with the viability of the sugar industry.

As a key regional centre for government, education and business in the South Pacific, Fiji’s September 17 election bodes well for the Pacific islands region as a whole. One hopes that Prime Minister Bainimarama and his comrades in the military will remain convinced that Fiji stands to gain much more as a robust and vibrant democracy than it does as a small island dictatorship.

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Gerard A Finin
Gerard A Finin is resident co-director of East-West Centre’s Pacific Islands Development Program. He conducts research on contemporary social and economic issues in the Pacific islands region.

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