Back into the fold
The island republic of Fiji, troubled but potentially prosperous, went to the polls on September 17th in the first election since the armed forces seized power in December 2006. Early results suggest that Frank Bainimarama, who became prime minister on the back of that coup, has polled strongly, with his Fiji First Party securing perhaps 60% of the vote. Since the coup Mr Bainimarama’s supporters have written a new constitution, introduced a bewildering electoral system and marshalled the resources of incumbency to secure victory for their new party. Their main opponent was the Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA), which led the government that was overthrown in 2006.
Mr Bainimarama, who stood down as army commander in March, says SODELPA is a group of corrupt politicians seeking to resurrect Fiji’s baneful tradition of racial tension between the three-fifths of the population who are indigenous and the one-third who are of Indian extraction. The head of SODELPA, Ro Teimumu Kepa, one of Fiji’s three paramount chiefs, retorts that Fiji’s root cause of instability is Mr Bainimarama himself and army officers.
Fiji has had three coups since independence, in 1987, 2000 and 2006. In all of them, the 3,500-strong armed forces have been the decisive actor—though in 2000 they intervened not to overthrow the government but to suppress a coup launched by ethnic-Fijian nationalists. Mr Bainimarama was military commander at the time. His claim to be liberating the nation from its history of ethnic strife constantly harks back to that earlier episode, when his own life was threatened during an army mutiny at the army barracks in Suva, the capital.
This time round, the army will accept the election result. Mr Bainimarama’s hand-picked successor as commander, Brigadier-General Mosese Tikoitoga, has promised to uphold the constitution of 2013 and says he will back whichever party forms a government. The other larger parties lined up in opposition to Fiji First say that the new constitution was foisted on Fijians. They say they will seek a judicial review if elected to government. It looks like they will not get the chance.
Mr Bainimarama’s position has grown considerably more secure than it was in the early post-coup years. Fiji’s economy has recovered. Chinese money has helped build new roads, including a much-needed tarmacked highway up the eastern side of Viti Levu, the main island. Among the urban poor, subsidised bus fares for children and free schooling are popular.
Mr Bainimarama himself has grown more accustomed to speaking in public, cracking jokes and handling questions more adeptly than at first. Meanwhile, his opponents have withered. In an implicit acknowledgment of Mr Bainimarama’s popularity as a man who gets things done, they have concentrated their fire on the attorney-general, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, who is responsible for much of the affairs of government and who is less popular.
In past elections Fiji’s citizens have voted strongly along ethnic lines. This time the pattern is blurred. Mr Bainimarama has polled well among ethnic-Indian voters, who did not like the indigenous-controlled pre-coup government. Indigenous Fijians appear split between Fiji First and SODELPA.
Of the other five parties, most will struggle to reach the 5% threshold. The new proportional electoral system featured an opaque ballot paper showing only numbers representing candidates. It did not make clear to voters that party tallies are decisive in determining the overall outcome. Unfortunately, the 2013 constitution requires a 75% majority in a referendum for any change.
With no election for eight years, and a reduction in the voting age from 21 to 18, a large number of Fiji’s nearly 600,000 adults were voting for the first time. Many younger Fijians back Mr Bainimarama’s development and anti-racist messages. The result, by in effect legitimising the coup, has shocked the country’s intellectual elite. The task now for the Fiji First Party is to adjust the leadership style to fit the new parliamentary context, and to consult more effectively.
The past eight years have been debilitating for Fiji’s politics and have fostered possibly durable divisions among the country’s elites. A new elected parliament—particularly if it can marshal at least a degree of consensus among Fiji’s eternally quarrelsome politicians—would not only enable the country to return to the Commonwealth and the Pacific Islands Forum. It could also open the door to substantial foreign investment.
Source: The Economist