Gordon Campbell on Fiji’s journey back to the future

79f3dd1abd416350be2473157a183904For wealthier New Zealanders and Australians, Fiji is just one option among many for their tourism resort experiences, poolside. Obviously, the country amounts to a lot more to the people who actually live there. It also happens to be the Pacific’s key diplomatic listening post, the home of the Pacific Islands Forum secretariat, a crucial hub for trade and transport among other Pacific islands, our largest Pacific trading partner, a major contributor to the UN’s global peacekeeping efforts, and the Pacific’s main advocate on climate change issues. Matters in Fiji matter.

For all those reasons and more, the recent change of government in Suva after 16 years of rule by the Fiji First government of Frank Bainimarama is a seismic event. For all the reasons cited above, Fiji is the main focus of our aid and diplomatic efforts in the South Pacific. How the new government chooses to manage its relations with China on one hand, and with the US (and its Australian and New Zealand deputies) on the other will have ripple effects across the region.

Unfortunately, the mandate won of the new coalition government of Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka is an extremely fragile one. The ruling three way coalition between Rabuka’s Peoples Alliance, the National Federation Party and SODELPA is a marriage of convenience. Its members are united mainly by their hostility to the outgoing Fiji First government, and by their declared intention to favour the indigenous Fijian part of the electorate. (There’s faint hope of a government for all Fijians from this lot). Depressingly, almost the new government’s first item of business has been to try and arrest the former Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, a central figure in Fiji First who departed for Australia on Boxing Day.

Despite the cost of living challenges facing most voters, the election outcome proved to be very, very close. While Fiji First won more votes and seats than any other party, it still needed SODELPA to form a governing majority. Instead SODELPA split and chose (by the narrowest of decisions) to go with Rabuka as PM – even though that decision was criticised by SODELPA’s own secretary general as having been made by a quorum that allegedly included people that had no right to cast such a vote.

Ultimately, the Fijian Parliament made the call. Yet even then, despite the Rabuka-led coalition nominally having 29 votes, it won the secret ballot in Parliament by only a whisker – 28 to 27 – which means that one of its own members must have chosen to vote for Fiji First instead. Hardly a reassuring sign of what may be in store over the course of the new government’s four year term of office. A mere defection or two could bring down the government, while an MP’s absence could defeat the passage of legislation. Government unity will be a survival necessity, not a tactical choice.

One interesting facet of the drama around Christmas was the role played by New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Understandably given the turmoil outlined above, Fiji First was refusing to concede defeat until Parliament had convened and the elected members had voted. Yet during this to and fro, Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta chose to congratulate Rabuka on his victory and expressed this country‘s willingness to work constructively with him in future – even while the legitimacy of the initial SODELPA vote and the final outcome were still up in the air.

The Australian newspaper reported this development in an article headlined “Kiwi Top Diplomat Quick To Embrace Rabuka’s Return”and noted that “Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta’s congratulations were in contrast to PM Jacinda Ardern’s more measured response.” The only way to read this situation is that – for who knows what reasons behind the scenes – MFAT appears to have been trying to stampede the incumbent Fijian government into a concession of defeat. Luckily for New Zealand, the cards did finally fall Rabuka’s way – but if the coalition government falls apart and Fiji First is returned to office, those early, hair-trigger congratulations may yet return to haunt us.

Coups past, division present

Fiji has a population of 925,000, of whom a declining share of about 35-38% (the estimates vary) are Indo-Fijians. Today’s Indo-Fijians are largely the descendants of the indentured labourers imported by Britain in the late 19th century, to work the sugar fields under imperial rule. The ongoing tension between indigenous Fijians (also known as a iTaukei) and Indo-Fijians led to the two Rabuka-led military coups of the late 1980s and to the George Speight coup of 2000, all of which served to shore up the power held by the iTaukei, in the face of perceived socio-political advances being made by Indo-Fijians.

The Bainimarama-led coup of 2006 had removed the government of the late Laisenia Qarase, the founder of SODELPA, who was later convicted on corruption charges. After passing a new and racially balanced Constitution in 2013, Bainimarama’s Fiji First party won a clear democratic mandate with two election victories in 2014, and in 2018. In a similar vein, Fiji First’s platform for the 2022 election made no special concessions to iTaukei or to Christians, and this reportedly became a factor in SODELPA’s “kingmaker” decisions. (Among SODELPA’s reported demands was the re-instatement of the Great Council of Chiefs disbanded by Fiji First, and the creation of a Fijian embassy in Jerusalem.)

Some of Fiji’s economic challenges are inevitable. Fiji is a relatively small, widely dispersed and racially divided country situated far away from major markets. Moreover, its economy is vulnerable to shocks from commodity price fluctuations, long and unpredictable supply chains and a regular series of natural disasters.

Covid hit Fiji’s tourism sector very hard. Pre-pandemic, tourism had accounted for 35-38% of the country’s GDP and provided jobs for about 26% of its work force. The subsequent economic downturn has had a severe impact on what has also become a skyrocketing cost of living crisis for most Fijians. The tourism sector strongly rebounded over the whole course of 2022, and this will give the new government some welcome relief. The latest World Bank figures show that – under Fiji First’s economic management – the overall poverty rate has declined from 29.9 percent to 24.1 percent of the population. Scant relief though, for those living at the bottom.

The country’s new finance minister is Bimam Prasad, the leader of the National Federation Party. He will have his work cut out, as Australia’s Lowy Institute think tank noted a few weeks ago:

Fiji is now making a strong rebound, but there are risks to the tourism-led recovery, not least inflation, debt and extreme climatic events. The positive trajectory could quickly change. Fiji needs good economic management and development partners to swing in behind it.

That point about “extreme climatic events” is well made. Despite his many critics, Sayed-Khaiyum was a strong voice for the Pacific in the UN’s global forums on climate change, and in advocating for the Forum’s ocean, fisheries and other environmental policies. In fact, as the Lowy analysts also explained, the new government may become more inward directed, as it shifts its agenda to meet the grievances being voiced by the iTaukei:

Prior to the election, Bainimarama….assisted with resolving regional tensions associated with the Pacific Islands Forum, helped secure the American broad-ranging partnership, and led on key issues related to climate change and oceans. There is no evidence to suggest a Rabuka-led government would not also work well with donors; [but] he’ll likely be more domestically than internationally focused.

And… China

Prior to the Fiji election, all the major parties in Fiji had agreed that Fiji would not adopt a Solomons-style deal with China on security and policing matters, let alone on military bases. That being the case, the superpower contest for influence seems likely to be played out on the aid and development fronts, with the unity of the coalition likely to be tested by any major new offers of Chinese investment funds.

Clearly, after successfully fending off the military/security dimension of potential Chinese influence in the Pacific, Australia and New Zealand cannot afford to leave the door open to China on development aid- and especially not on the kind of projects that would stand to enrich iTaukei land and business interests, in the name of poverty relief. Oceans policy, fisheries protection and tourism infrastructure are other arenas of likely competitive investment between the two superpowers, as they seek to woo the new government.

As with governments elsewhere in the Pacific region, the Rabuka government can be expected to use that superpower rivalry to leverage aid and investment concessions from China and the US alike. The difficulty for our diplomats will be to differentiate between the real threat of undue influence from the usual kinds of shadow boxing that merely come with the territory.

In the past, New Zealand has readily criticised the heavy handed approach that Fiji First often took to internal security and dissent. (It was much less vocal in supporting the Bainimarama administration’s efforts to promote multi-racialism.) If the new government in Suva does now revert to the racially divisive, corrupt and internally focussed policies that prevailed between 1987 and 2006, our diplomats will no doubt find a way to co-exist with such an administration, just as New Zealand did in the decades prior to the coup led by Bainimarama.

Fijians of all races though, have more at stake than simply ensuring that a calm surface is kept on the diplomatic pond. At this point, ordinary Fijians have reason to feel anxious about what their new government may have in store for them – whether by intention, or by accident.

Song for Sayed-Khaiyum

As Joni Mitchell says in what is arguably her greatest song, “No regrets, coyote…” Even though “either he’s going to have to stand and fight, or take off out of here…”