Fiji, and the enabling of democracy’s enemies

If you’re depressed – as many are – by the constant headlines on the rise of populist authoritarianism in both America and Europe, there’s a story closer to home this week that should offer some food for thought.

Everyone has their own list of suspects for why people might be turning to the likes of Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, from immigration to “neoliberalism” to Jeremy Corbyn to Rupert Murdoch. But one that gets less attention than it should is the way that mainstream western governments, over many decades, have failed to defend democracy when it’s been threatened, and indeed have demonstrated positive hostility towards it.

Hence the symbolic importance of this week’s visit to Fiji by Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop. Fiji’s prime minister, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, seized power in a military coup almost ten years ago, and has ruled the country (sometimes directly, sometimes through intermediaries) ever since. A rather dubious election in September 2014 confirmed him in power.

At the time of the 2006 coup, Fiji’s elected government sought Australian assistance, which was ostentatiously refused by John Howard. Bainimarama had made no secret of what he was plotting, and it’s pretty clear that an early signal from Australia would have stopped him in his tracks. Instead, we sided with the enemies of democracy.

And Fiji might be small beer, but that’s what western countries keep doing, time and again. Recall the long-running American project of propping up General Musharraf in Pakistan, despite the devastation that it brought to that country.

Tony Abbott came to power in 2013 with a promise to “normalise” relations with Fiji (following an ineffective regime of sanctions that had been half-heartedly maintained by Labor), and that’s one promise that was quickly kept.

I’m not saying that, once an authoritarian government has firmly established itself in power (as Bananarama clearly has), we should refuse to deal with it. There’s certainly a case for engagement of some sort with Fiji, especially in light of the humanitarian needs following last month’s Cyclone Winston.

But what’s striking is the total lack of criticism or comment from the Australian government on Fiji’s lack of democracy. (Elections notwithstanding: an election where the incumbent military dictator is a candidate is not an exercise in democracy.) You can read through all of Bishop’s media appearances this week without coming across a word of concern.

Nor will you be surprised to learn that no journalist encouraged her on the subject. In one interview she did say “Of course I raise issues of human rights,” but that was in relation to Iran, not Fiji.

How can we expect voters to embrace democratic solutions to their concerns when the whole idea of democracy is so consistently disvalued and undermined by their own governments? No wonder the demagogues are taking heart – the ground for them has been well prepared.

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