One of the more unlikely victories for democracy last year came in December in Fiji, when the government of rear admiral Frank Bainimarama, who seized power in a coup in 2006, was defeated by a coalition headed by another former military ruler, major-general Sitiveni Rabuka.
Bainimarama complained in rather Trumpy fashion about the alleged unfairness of his defeat, but did not in the end obstruct the peaceful transfer of power. It remained uncertain, however, how the Fiji military would respond to the new state of affairs, given that it had become accustomed to making and unmaking governments in recent times, starting with Rabuka’s own coups in 1987.
Sure enough, the new government had been in office less than a month when its military commander, major-general Jone Kalouniwai, made some critical remarks and referred pointedly to the military’s supposed role as guardian of the constitution. He was promptly brought into line after a “frank exchange of views” with the home affairs minister, and Rabuka stated that he had no concerns about his relationship with the military.
In more well-established democracies, a commander who spoke out of turn in this way would be cashiered, as happened in Spain some years ago. But Fiji is not yet at that stage; its politicians have to tread carefully and to take such comfort as they can from the fact that the military has been generally supportive and its intervention has been much less than might have been feared.
Then last month came the first sitting of parliament under the new government, and Rabuka made a plea for national unity and co-operation. But this fell on deaf ears as far as Bainimarama was concerned: he attacked the government for ignoring the rule of law and the constitution, which he described as the “gift and legacy” of the military, and urged soldiers “to maintain the credibility and their calling and not forsake the constitutional role.”
This could easily be taken as a thinly-veiled call for mutiny, so it’s not very surprising that Bainimarama was referred to the privileges committee for using treasonable or seditious words. It promptly reported against him, and a parliamentary vote suspended him for three years. Yesterday he resigned his now useless seat, allowing another member of his party to take his place.
A case like this arouses mixed feelings. On the one hand, freedom of speech in parliament is absolutely critical to democracy. While breach of privilege is a real thing and suspensions for it are not uncommon, in most places they last for a matter of hours or days, not years. Exercise of more vengeful powers by parliaments – as, for example, with the expulsion of Hugh Mahon in Australia a century ago – are pretty universally disapproved.
On the other hand, Bainimarama forced himself into office at gunpoint, tore up the constitution and governed as a dictator for the best part of a decade. He should count himself lucky that he is not in prison, or worse; in many places he would have been simply court-martialed and shot. It’s easy to see why Rabuka and his supporters would not have a lot of patience with him.
So while it may be fair to accuse the government of a “lack of adherence to basic fundamentals of due process and procedural fairness,” Bainimarama is not really the person best placed to make that point. Nor, for that matter, is Rabuka an ideal person to be lecturing others on respect for democracy. But as I said last year, “in difficult times we have to take what we can get.”
PS: According to the Guardian, prosecutors are now coming after Bainimarama with more serious charges. Meanwhile, Nancy Schneider at the Institute of International Affairs has a good review of Rabuka’s first months in office.