“Election” preview: Fiji

Look, don’t bother with the results of the last election – it was a travesty, and tomorrow’s won’t be much better. Instead, go back and read what I wrote in 2013 about the military in the third world. Then it was Egypt and this is the South Pacific, but the lesson is the same. I was angry then and I still am:

Foreign aid, which we think of in a touchy-feely sort of way as helping the poor and oppressed, not just often fails to do that but is often doing the exact opposite. It props up the very institutions that do the most harm in poor countries, including most prominently the military. …

Overspending on the military, the security services and private security contractors isn’t just waste; it undermines civil society by reinforcing structures that have a fundamentally illiberal, anti-democratic spirit. By implication it promotes obedience and hierarchy rather than accountability and equality. …

It’s in the less developed world, however, that this approach has been truly disastrous. Countries that are crying out for resources to spend on human services instead pour money into armaments; countries that desperately need entrepreneurship instead send their young people into the military to have initiative beaten out of them; and countries that are trying against the odds to nurture a spirit of democracy and openness find that instead they are fostering closed and authoritarian institutions.

Time and time again, our aid policies have nurtured the most useless and harmful institutions in countries that need all the help they can get. And tomorrow in Fiji that reaches its absurd culmination in an election to be fought out between two men who belong in front of a firing squad: challenger Major-General Sitiveni Rabuka, who began the destruction of Fijian democracy with two coups in 1987, and incumbent Commodore Frank Bainimarama, who completed the job with another coup in 2006.

Opposition to democracy in Fiji (and many other places as well) has been a thoroughly bipartisan policy in Australia. As Dominic O’Sullivan reported yesterday in the Conversation, “Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced $3 billion in infrastructural spending in the region [and] committed the Australian Defence Force to military training in Pacific nations,” while “[opposition leader] Bill Shorten committed a future Labor government to an independent foreign policy with a strong Pacific focus [that] would support Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Tonga to develop their military capabilities.”

Military capabilities? What does he think Fiji is going to do, fight off an amphibious Chinese invasion? It should be laughable, but it is deadly serious.

Sending more guns to poor countries doesn’t in any way make the world a safer place. They are never going to be used against geopolitical enemies; their only purposes are to bully their neighbors and to bully their own people.

O’Sullivan’s conclusion is understated but plain:

It may not, then, be in Australia’s best interests to support a stronger Fijian military.

Democratic stability serves Australia’s interests. In Fiji, democracy can be strong only when the military is weak.

Costa Rica, a larger country in a much more dangerous part of the world, abolished its entire military back in 1949. Since then it has consistently led its region on just about every available measure of democracy, welfare and human rights. If we actually wanted to do good with our foreign aid, we could be teaching other countries how to follow that example.

Broadly speaking, Rabuka is the candidate of privilege for the ethnic Fijians while Bananarama is the candidate of civic equality. But Rabuka, having had more than a decade to cool his heels in opposition, is also more appreciative of the ideas of democracy and human rights, which have had a poor run under Bananarama.

Incumbent military rulers tend not to lose elections, and there’s no reason to think this will be any exception. Voting is D’Hondt proportional across the whole country with a 5% threshold; since parties are not identified on the ballot paper, and voters have to choose among a multitude of individual candidates (236 of them this year), the effect is to eliminate all but the most well-known dissenting voices. (Tight government control of the media makes this easier.)

In a dangerous world, Fiji is hardly the worst of our problems. Certainly it is far from the worst offender against democratic norms. But as a window into the disdain for democracy that has got us to where we are, it can hardly be bettered.



6 thoughts on ““Election” preview: Fiji

  1. There is some argument for using PIN numbers instead of candidates’ names when the electoral system has a blank space on the ballot for the voter to fill in (instead of listing all the candidates’ names, as we do in Australia).
    Voters in Finland and Brazil, using an open-list system with large numbers of seats per constituency, have their job simplified by being able to write “666” (instead of “Boaventura de Sousa Santos” or “Vieno Johannes Sukselainen” or “Edson Arantes do Nascimento” or “Anneli Tuulikki Jäätteenmäki”) on a small ballot slip. In fact we did the same thing in Australia with our one and only recent experiment with write-in ballots – the postal contest for ConCon delegates in 1997.
    But in Fiji the state already prints all the candidates’ PIN numbers on a ballot-paper that resembles a bingo card. This uses no less ink or paper than simply printing, you know, the candidates’ names, and it complicates the voter’s job. Am I being too cynical?


    1. Indeed – if you’re voting for (some among a large number of) individual candidates as an alternative to voting for a party, there’s no need to print all the names. But in Fiji you have to vote for a candidate, so the point of the “bingo card” really is just to make it harder to vote against the government.


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