Events in Fiji

fiji election man

Chris Trotter is well able to look after himself, but the recent criticism on him by No Right Turn over the Fiji situation is worth a few comments. The notion that an election, any election is an over-riding litmus test of political legitimacy cannot pass unchallenged, and NRT begs the question when he repeats the verdict of international monitors that Laisinia Qarase’s mandate in 2006 was achieved on the back of ‘free and fair’ elections – thus inferring the Fijian people really have only themselves to blame for the failures of governance between 2001 and 2006.

Qarase’s mandate, and the methods by which he gained it, were always dubious – and addressing the patent inadequacies in the Fijian voting system has been a genuine reason for delay in calling elections. How much of this delay has been genuine and much is not? More on that later, but the maximum of five years recently cited by Fiji President Josefa Iloilo would be unacceptable to the Fijian people. It remains to be seen whether Frank Bainimarama comes up with a date short of the maximum, but this will certainly not be as the result of demands issuing from Australia and New Zealand.

Last year’s White Paper on the Fiji election timeline did mention many political imponderables, but it also seemed to indicate that a ten month preparation time was feasible for most of the hurdles to be surmounted, which would have been roughly in accord with the South Pacific Forum’s desired timetable. Some delay was inevitable, and desirable – because the 2006 election had been no picnic for democracy. The election was hastily called in 2006, the weighting of votes between constituencies (more on that below) was unjust, and there were major inaccuracies in the rolls – while the campaign itself entailed the campaign bribes (eg wage rises held out to public servants) and an extreme polarisation of society along racial lines that Qarase’s campaign fed on and fostered. These factors cannot be tidily divorced from the events that are now unfolding in Fiji.

Another election along 2006 lines is therefore indefensible. And if holding an election is the only test of political morality that really matters, the Marcos family would still be running the Philippines, the Shah’s dynasty would still be in power in Iran and conversely, Hamas would be administering international aid right now to Gaza. (They should be, but has the NZ government ever backed that legitimately elected government? No.)

As Trotter pointed out, Qarase had been installed by Bainamarama in the wake of the George Speight coup – and on an understanding that he would not abuse that incumbency within the 2001 election. Qarase then formed a political party and forged an alliance with a crew of ethno-nationalists that were close to the coup plotters who – among other things – had tried to assassinate Bainimarama in November 2000. Many of the seeds of the current conflict were sown during this period.

On other grounds, it is not as if the election process had been smashingly admirable in the 2001 election, either. Labour won most of the vote – 34.9% – but got only 28 seats in the 71 seat House of Representatives. Labour were then denied by Qarase their constitutional right to Cabinet power sharing. Even when subsequently ordered by the courts. Qarase lengthily delayed his compliance, especially over the seating of Mahendra Chaudhry. For some reason, none of this caused much concern to the Fiji desk at MFAT.

Nor was the voting system in Fiji quite so very free and fair in other respects, as NRT jauntily supposes. In January this year, Crosbie Walsh pointed out some of the blatantly unfair features of the 2006 electoral system that underlay (and undermined) the overt attempt at a balanced allocation of communal representation along racial lines, as affirmatively promoted by the 1997 Constitution:

In the 2006 election for example, there were on average only 9,437 registered voters in Fijian, 4,607 in General Voter, and 5,373 in Rotuman communal electorates. This compared with 16,065 for Urban Fijian electorates and 10,762 for Indo-Fijians. Urban Fijians and Indo-Fijians were grossly under-represented.

These averages hide even further inequalities. The rural Fijian electorates of Bua, Kadavu, Lau, Namosi and Serua each had less than 7,000 registered voters, while more urbanized Ba West had 15,348, and Nadroga/Navosa 19,044.

It should be noted that the former over-represented electorates are among the least “developed” and most prone to influence by chiefs and church ministers. In contrast, the latter under-represented electorates produced two multi-ethnic Fijian parliamentary leaders ousted by racist-driven coups: Dr Timoci Bavadra, Fiji’s first Labour Party leader (ousted by the “Rabuka” coup in 1987) and Adi Teimumu Vuikaba Speed, Deputy PM in the Mahendra Chaudhry Labour-led government (ousted by the “Speight” 2000 coup).

It is, of course, an over-simplification to equate patterns of voting with geographic areas, but there is some relationship.

So if each person’s vote is to be of equal importance — as the UN requires — you wouldn’t recommend the Fiji system, whatever its ethnic predispositions.

So the 2006 election was, to that extent, rigged. The issues that need to be addressed before truly free and fair elections are called go to the heart of the many flaws in the current communal forms of seat allocations, and the voting system in play. As the result of constitutional amendments, an ‘alternative vote’ system had been installed for the 2001 election that transfers votes from low polling parties to larger parties via electoral pacts that – as the widely respected Fijian former vice president Ratu Jone Madraiwiwi has warned – are not well understood by voters, and which benefitted Qarase in both elections. (Madraiwiwi’s calls for a fairer system of proportional representation have so far fallen on deaf ears).

The job of reforming this mess had been embraced by Bainimarama who – in the cause of fostering national identity – has advocated scrapping the communal voting system altogether, in favour of a ‘one man, one vote’ common roll system that would make no ethnic distinctions between voters. Typically, Qarase has reportedly come round to endorsing a half way house form of proportional representation that would result in indigenous Fijians still holding a parliamentary majority.

The point being, any meaningful dialogue between the regime and the South Pacific Forum should be identifying the remaining barriers to cleaning up the electoral rolls, to establishing a fairer weighting between constituencies and to replacing the alternative vote system – and to setting a reasonable timetable for these outcomes, and the deployment of resources (from outside if need be) to help complete the tasks. The interim regime had already established a Peoples Charter process of electoral reform. It has long claimed to need more time to complete this process. So far, the regime and the Forum have not engaged in any fruitful dialogue on reaching a compromise timetable.
The Economic Legacy

Any coup will disrupt the social and economic life of a country. The interim regime in Fiji is not only sailing head on now into the global recession – it had picked up the reins after Fiji’s ruinous economic experience under the Qarase administration. For an even handed summary of the corruption and incompetence that was rife under the Qarase government, read Shailendra Singh’s brief report from last month, accessible here.

Singh is especially credible, in that his damning reportage on the Qarase years begins with the widespread dismay in Fiji that Bainimarama now wants to collect back pay dating over some 20 years and amounting to nearly $US100,000, while Chaudhry has reportedly made personal use of a million dollar fund created by supporters in India at the time of his ousting in 2000. These issues have badly dented both men’s credentials as reformers.

The coup did not come of the blue. On the eve of the Army takeover in December 2006, Qarase was purporting to pardon and promote some of the political cronies who had toppled the Chaudhry government, and to pass laws that would have systematically discriminated on racial grounds against Indo-Fijians. Here are a few salient points from a backgrounder written by the respected pro-democracy campaigner and Methodist clergyman Reverend Akuila Yabaki in February 2007 for the Nautilus Institute :

The elections were ultimately called for May 2006. This was earlier than expected and preparations by the Elections Office were hasty and marred by widespread complaints of inaccuracies in the electoral rolls. The SDL’s [Qarase’s party] campaign was characterised by promises directed at indigenous Fijians, including a proposed new law on customary fishing grounds and a tribunal to investigate claims concerning the loss of ancestral land. Mr Qarase was accused of inciting racial hatred by warning that the election of an ethnic Indian Prime Minister – meaning the leader of the opposition Fiji Labour Party (FLP), Mahendra Chaudhry – could lead to civil unrest or even a coup. Commodore Bainimarama renewed controversy over the role of the military in Fiji’s democracy by publicly denouncing the SDL’s election promises. He said the RFMF would not allow a coup to take place after the elections, no matter who was in government.

Several teams of local and international monitors observed the final days of election campaigning, polling at stations across the country from May 6 to 13, the counting of votes and announcement of the results. All the international monitors reported a range of problems but nonetheless concluded the elections were “free and fair”.

In the result, the SDL party was narrowly re-elected over the FLP, with voters heavily polarised along ethnic lines. The SDL received over 80% of the votes of indigenous Fijians, and the FLP over 80% of the votes of ethnic Indians.

The re-elected Qarase Government announced that a revised version of the [amnesty to coup plotters] PRTU Bill (which had lapsed prior to the elections) would be introduced in the new Parliament. Two other Bills, designed to fulfil SDL election promises concerning customary fishing grounds (the Qoliqoli Bill) and ancestral land claims (Indigenous Claims Tribunal Bill), also drew RFMF anger after the May elections. Commodore Bainimarama said these Bills would take Fiji back to “the days of grass skirts, canoes and cannibalism” – by which he appears to have meant they would cause division and conflict among indigenous Fijians.

As Singh points out, the level of corruption in the years 2001-2006 was immense, with the interim government alleging some 50% of allocated funds were being lost via corruption and waste. Though Qarase’s economic credentials rested on his prior career as a banker, public debt doubled to 52% of GDP during that time. By late 2006, Bainimarama had had more than enough.

Should he have obeyed orders, and dutifully continued to serve as a dutiful servant of the Qarase government? Yes, according to those who believe in the primacy of elections, any elections. Yet when a system is corrupt and its leaders about to enact divisive and racist laws on behalf of its cronies and factional support base – including the boosting of a socially regressive GST-type tax – some people may decide not to be its accomplice any longer. So Bainimarama made his move. Illegal? Maybe. Understandable? Yes.

Since then, there is no doubt that Bainimarama has failed to capitalise on the goodwill that his anti-corruption drive initially generated. The clumsy and brutal tactics that the Army is using against its critics deserves to be roundly condemned, and are unsustainable. The country cannot continue to be run, day in month out, in this fashion. The Commodore has also largely frittered away much of the early support he enjoyed for his plans to eliminate racism from the electoral system. UNHCR’s Freedom House put it this way in their 2008 report on Fiji :

The interim government tried to live up to its pledge to combat corruption, requiring all civil service appointments be made by the Public Service Commission, creating a new anticorruption investigation team to collect evidence of fraud and graft in all government organizations, and establishing an independent commission to adjudicate evidence gathered by the investigators. As a result, numerous high-profile actions were taken in a matter of months, including the suspension of the chief executive of the $2 billion National Provident Fund for alleged corruption and abuses and of the assistant police commissioner for accepting bribes.

Bainimarama also pledged to rid the system of race-based politics so as to restore social peace, curb the exodus of skilled Indo-Fijians, and revive the economy. He proposed replacing the race-based election rolls with communal rolls based on location of residence, and reviewing school-funding policies that favored indigenous Fijian schools. As a result, Hindi and Fijian will be taught in all primary and secondary schools to promote interethnic understanding, and former Fijian citizens can invest, work, and conduct business in Fiji under a new residency status.

The conflict between supporting the laudable aims of the interim regime and condemning its current dictatorial methods are – significantly – reflected in the positions articulated by Ratu Jone Madraiwiwi. Besides his former role as vice-President, Madraiwiwi is a high chief in the Kubuna confederacy and nephew of Ratu Lala Sukuna, the prime architect of modern Fijian self governance.

During the first Rabuka coup in 1987, I found Madraiwiwi to be an oasis of rational concern, and he remains so today. He has never backed off from publicly criticising the interim regime as illegal, and – in letters to the editor and speeches – has condemned the Army attacks on the judiciary and media, and the abuse of human rights. Yet Madraiwiwi is also a realist who recognises there are no feasible solutions to be found in reverting to the recent past, and that Qarase represents a dead end. He has consistently taken, as Crosbie Walsh says, a ‘how do we get out of this mess’ approach of defending principle, while supportive of solutions that do not treat the regime as devoid of principle, either. Ratu Jone remains the one public figure in the country able to command sufficient respect to bring all sides and communities together.

It would be no picnic. If Bainimarama finally fails, he will be judged by his people on his failure to deliver greater prosperity – and less so on the curtailment of freedoms in the process. This can only make the use of economic weapons against him look very attractive indeed to his critics. Yet IMHO, it would be harmful to the cause of reconciliation if the European Union refuses to deliver its assistance to the Fijian sugar industry, and if Britain and the UN choose to refuse to use Fijian troops in future in their peacekeeping work overseas. This would only create further economic suffering and resentment, and not meek compliance. With justification, it would also enable Bainimarama to blame outsiders for his own failures.

There is no going back. If the end result delivers Fiji back to the same corrupt, incompetent and race-mongering elites that Bainimarama has tried to replace, it would be a double tragedy. Chris Trotter at least, seems willing to consider that even worse alternatives than the current regime are on the cards.

In late 2006, if there had been a truly progressive Labour government in New Zealand, it might have grasped the opportunity that Qarase’s exit offered. It could have engaged positively with the interim government. It chose not to. The result, in all likelihood, will not be in New Zealand’s best interests, much less that of most Fijians. As Scoop has previously argued, our current diplomatic policy is only likely to push Bainimarama further into isolation, and further towards a closer alliance with China, thus providing China with a military and economic ally right on our doorstep.

Even Kiribati and the Cook Islands are now treating the exclusion of Australia and New Zealand as a necessary step if any progress is to be made with diplomatic overtures towards Fiji.

That is the irony. New Zealand and Australia (with the help of its dutiful allies such as Samoa ) will ensure Fiji is kicked out of the Forum. Yet in parallel, some of the region’s leaders will also be seeking to engage with Bainimarama to produce a Pacific solution – one that would work in tandem with whatever might emerge from the heavily controlled Political Parties Dialogue Forum that Bainimarama has until now at least, endorsed.

There is not much hope to hold onto. Yet any election at all, under any terms and conditions whatsoever – is not a recipe for a just and socially sustainable future for Fiji, either.


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