FIJI was plunged into political conflict after its military government rejected in January a draft constitution prepared by the Yash Ghai Constitution Commission and also deregistered most political parties through new regulations. A new constitution would have been a significant step towards the preparations for general elections, which would in turn have restored democracy in the country.
Fiji came under military rule in 2006, when Commodore Frank Bainimarama, the chief of the military forces, deposed the elected Prime Minister in a bloodless coup and took over power. It was the third time since 1987 that an elected government had been overthrown in the Pacific island nation.
Political parties have termed the rejection of the draft and the deregistration of political parties a “constitutional coup”. They described the government’s efforts to elicit responses to its own draft constitution as a “sham” that was meant to arrogate additional powers to Prime Minister Bainimarama. The new regulations on political parties were aimed to restrict the field for political activity before the elections, they said. Bainimarama has already indicated his intention to contest the elections slated for September 2014.
The Bainimarama regime thrashed the constitution drafted by the Constitution Commission it had appointed in July last year. Announcing the decision in a television broadcast, Bainimarama said that the government’s legal team would amend the draft to ensure that it was “positive, addresses fundamental issues of good governance, and will result in an enduring constitution and guarantees true democracy”. His government then presented its own draft for public endorsement.
The government also issued a decree imposing fresh restrictions on political parties, which resulted in the deregistration of 14 out of 17 parties. The decree was that a political party should have at least 5,000 members divided between the four regions of Fiji. Political parties were given 28 days to get registered for a fee of $2,800 collected by means of contributions from party members. However, there was a caveat that political parties should not accept donations from corporate groups, businessmen and non-governmental organisations, and a limit was set to the amount each individual could donate.
There were more conditions. The names of political parties could only be in English. Public servants and trade union leaders could not be members of political parties. The media were barred from referring to non-registered political groups as political parties. Fourteen existing political parties lost their registration and only two—the Fiji Labour Party and the National Federation Party—could meet the deadline for registration for existing parties.
Shortly thereafter, Bainimarama announced that he was dropping the plan to set up a constituent assembly to review the draft constitution. Instead, he said, the government would seek the opinion of the public directly and the people would play the role of the constituent assembly. Fijians were asked to express their opinion on the draft charter by making submissions through letters, email, text messages, Facebook posts, radio shows and public meetings.
The five-member Constitution Commission appointed by the military government was headed by Professor Yash Ghai, a well-known constitutional expert, who had been involved in constitution drafting in Kenya, Papua New Guinea and Nepal. The Commission was tasked with holding public consultations to draw up a draft constitution, which would then be submitted to a constituent assembly for endorsement. The appointment of the Constitution Commission was widely welcomed in Fiji and abroad as a move towards restoring democracy. The Commission held public consultations and received about 7,000 submissions from individuals, political parties and various organisations.
The Bainimarama government did not approve of some of the recommendations of the Commission and rejected the draft document in controversial circumstances. Ghai claimed that the police seized all copies of the draft constitution and burned them in his presence. Government spokespersons, however, refuted Ghai’s contention and questioned the need to have 600 copies of the draft printed without the knowledge of other members of the Commission.
The Commission’s draft provided for a new parliament with 71 elected members plus a national people’s assembly of 144 unelected members including 72 members from civil society groups. It ruled out any political role for Fiji’s armed forces and mandated that a transitional government be appointed six months before the polls to conduct free and fair elections.
While there was some criticism about certain provisions of the Commission’s draft, the government’s version has attracted strong opprobrium from political parties. Fiji’s President Ratu Epeli Nailatikau praised the provisions on fundamental rights, including socio-economic rights, good governance and accountability, in the Commission’s draft, but questioned the provision for a 144-member body of unelected members deciding key issues including the appointment of the President.
The United Front for a Democratic Fiji (UFDF), a coalition of four large political parties, alleged that the government’s draft perpetuated dictatorship and was against the concept of a free and democratic society. The Front called for the Ghai Commission draft to be referred to a representative constituent assembly appointed by the President in consultation with political parties and other social groups. It should then be approved by the people of Fiji through a national referendum to give it the requisite legal authority and legitimacy, according to the UFDF.
The civil society organisation Citizen’s Constitutional Forum (CCF), in its critique of the government draft, referred to the unprecedented concentration of power with the Prime Minister and the Attorney General. This includes the power to make appointments to nearly all senior positions in the judiciary, independent commissions and also to senior official posts. The CCF pointed out that the document made no mention of women, thus foregoing the responsibility of promoting women’s interests and empowerment.
Others have been critical of the proposal to make the Prime Minister, instead of the President, the commander-in-chief of the Fiji Military Forces. Discussions through public meetings cannot replace a comprehensive review by a constituent assembly, they say. The government draft proposes a single house of parliament with 45 members elected for a four-year term through proportional representation from multi-member constituencies.
The deregistration clause has forced political parties to try to meet the strict terms of the new regulations. Sitiveni Rabuka, the middle-ranking army officer who carried out the first coup in 1987, has announced that he is quitting politics and will not stand for elections next year. Rabuka’s political party lost its registration under the new decree. Rabuka had overthrown the newly elected Fiji Labour Party government in 1987 because it was dominated by Indians; he later brought in laws that enshrined the supremacy of indigenous Fijians in the political system.
Rabuka restored democracy and held elections under a new racially equitable constitution in 1999, but lost the elections to the Fiji Labour Party headed by Mahendra Chaudhry. Chaudhry’s government was taken hostage by an armed gang led by the businessman George Speight a year later. The 56-day hostage crisis was defused by Commodore Bainimarama under a deal which installed the technocrat Laisenia Qarase as Prime Minister. Qarase won the elections in 2001 and 2006 but fell out with Bainimarama over two controversial Bills and the issue of amnesty for mutinous rebel soldiers. Bainimarama then deposed Qarase, charging his government with corruption and other misdeeds.
The first two coups were accompanied by communal riots that targeted the minority population of Indian origin, sharpening the ethnic divide in Fiji between indigenous Fijians and Fiji’s Indian minority. “Fiji for Fijians” was the slogan that coup leaders used to play on the apprehensions of indigenous Fijians that the economically better-off Indians would engulf them.
By 2006, the steady migration of Indians to Australia, New Zealand and the United States had reduced the Indian population in Fiji to 34 per cent. The 2006 bloodless coup did not target Indians; it was a fight between two sections of indigenous Fijian society.
Through the decades, the feudal indigenous Fijian society has seen changes, with Fijians moving to urban centres and becoming part of the modern economic structure. Indian migration has sharply changed the demographic pattern. Bainimarama has often declared that he is opposed to political parties based on ethnicity and has stressed that all Fijians should be recognised as equal under the constitution. He has taken several steps against the indigenous Fijian feudal hierarchy, including abolishing the Great Council of Chiefs—the body of traditional Fijian chiefs that appointed the President, the Vice President and members of the Senate, and had the final say on laws regarding indigenous Fijians and their special rights to the land. Many Fijians have called for the Great Council of Chiefs to be revived sans its political powers, as the body had a social role in the traditional life of indigenous Fijians.
Mixed response Bainimarama’s attempts to tweak the proposed constitution to his liking have received a mixed response in the neighbourhood. The Commonwealth suspended Fiji from its councils in 2006 as did the main regional body, the Pacific Islands Forum. Over the years, both Australia and New Zealand have diluted their economic sanctions against the Bainimarama regime when they realised that the sanctions did not achieve their objectives. Since then, both governments have been seeking to persuade the Fiji regime to take specific steps towards restoring democracy. Both neighbours partly funded the Constitution Commission headed by Ghai. But Australia’s response to the rejection of the proposed constitution was muted, as it agreed with some of the objections raised by the Fiji regime, such as the one about an unelected national assembly with uncertain powers. Taking a harder stance, New Zealand expressed concern at the rejection, calling it a backward step.
Attorney General and Elections Minister Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiym, whose team was leading the public consultations on the government draft, said that the public response to the discussions had been “overwhelmingly positive”. The teams travelled to Kadavu and the Yasawas to give Fijians on these remote islands the opportunity to discuss the draft constitutions before public consultations closed on April 30.
The rejection of the draft constitution is a setback to the process of liberalising the controls that the Bainimarama regime had begun last year when it ended the state of emergency, lifted the restrictions on public meetings, and relaxed the draconian censorship regulations. The new restrictions on political parties are a further step backward.
Bainimarama has consistently emphasised that Fiji will hold elections by September 2014. But for free and fair elections, Fiji needs a constitution that is acceptable to the majority of its nationals. It also needs to give space to its political parties to carry out legitimate political activity, which is an intrinsic part of democratic functioning. Bainimarama now needs to restore public confidence that political parties are not being targeted unfairly in an attempt to keep them out of the electoral battle.