Fiji chooses democracy, sort of

The electoral year ended on a positive note last week, with an unexpectedly peaceful transfer of power to its new prime minister, major-general Sitiveni Rabuka. Rabuka, who originally seized power in a coup in 1987, has paradoxically become the standard-bearer of democracy, finally defeating the country’s more recent military ruler, rear admiral Frank Bainimarama, after 16 years in power.

Fiji is a fairly big country by south Pacific standards (it has nearly twice the population of Tasmania), so it gets some attention in Australia. Forty-odd years ago, its government, led by long-serving prime minister Kamisese Mara (who mostly represented the Melanesian community), was a particular favorite of the right-wing media in Australia, which portrayed it as an example of racial harmony.

The subtext for this was opposition to majority rule in South Africa – Fiji was supposed to be a counter-example, showing that peace between different ethnic groups could be maintained by a complex system of reserved seats and racial classifications. But that argument came to grief in 1987, when the Fiji Labour Party (representing mostly the Indo-Fijian community), having succeeded in overcoming the gerrymander and ousting Mara, was overthrown by then-colonel Rabuka.

Australia refused to intervene in support of democracy, and Mara returned to office with a new constitution to guarantee Melanesian power. The cycle then repeated; another Labour government was elected in 1999 and was removed in another coup the following year. New prime minister Laisenia Qarase resorted to various subterfuges to maintain Melanesian power, until he in turn was overthrown by the military, headed by Bainimarama, in December 2006.

Once again Australia turned a blind eye, showing that it was impartially hostile to civilian rule regardless of which side was in power. Another new constitution was introduced to legitimise the military government, and ultimately a dodgy election in 2014 gave Bananarama a parliamentary majority, whereupon other countries dropped the very modest sanctions that they had adopted.

The following election, in 2018, was also less than a democratic exercise, with the government controlling the media and an electoral system loaded in its favor. But Bananarama’s party, FijiFirst, nonetheless dropped nine points, retaining only a narrow majority with 50.0% of the vote and 27 of the 51 seats. Its main opposition was the Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA), improbably led by Rabuka, which won 39.9% and 21 seats; the remaining three seats went to the National Federation Party (NFP), now the main vehicle of the Indo-Fijians, with 7.4%.

By now the political cleavage was less about Indians vs Melanesians and more about dismantling Bananarama’s authoritarian regime. Rabuka left SODELPA and formed a new broad-based opposition party, the People’s Alliance, to contest this year’s election, held on 14 December. The government brought forth its usual range of dirty tricks, and there was considerable doubt as to whether the prime minister would be willing to accept defeat.

Delays and anomalies in the release of results added to concerns. But when the figures were finalised the outcome was clear: FijiFirst fell to 42.6% and 26 seats out of 55. The combined opposition had 49.8% and 29 seats – 21 for the People’s Alliance, five for the NFP and three for SODELPA. The two smaller parties both committed to support Rabuka as prime minister, and he was duly confirmed by parliament and sworn in on Christmas eve.

Bananarama continued the recent trend of authoritarian leaders in grumbling about the process (including an attempt to stoke racial tension) but ultimately accepting defeat. It seems as if the very conspicuous failure of Donald Trump to overturn his loss has deterred others from following his example.

So while on one view Fiji has just exchanged one military ruler for another, there are some grounds for optimism. After a long time to mellow in opposition, Rabuka now stresses his belief in liberal democracy and his intent to govern in the interests of all Fijians. This time, one may hope, those ideas will be given a fair trial.

If, on the other hand, the cycle of military intervention should continue, the new prime minister will really only have himself to blame.


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