New dawn in the Pacific

Print edition : March 21, 2014

The Suva market provides one many glimpses of local colour and it is here that East and West meet with the islanders of the Pacific. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Commander Frank Bainimarama. He has announced his intention to contest the elections. Photo: Pita Ligaiula/AP

Fiji is ready for its first democratic elections under a new Constitution and a new electoral system and with a common nomenclature for all its citizens.

FIJI, which has had a shaky democratic foundation, is in the process of holding its “first democratic election” under a new Constitution, a new electoral system and a common nomenclature for its people. “We are all Fijians now,” said Foreign Minister Ratu Inoke Kuboubola, “not Indians, Fijians or other races; all citizens of one country. With a race-based Constitution, which led to race-based politics, Fijian people were not allowed to share a common identity.”

For the first time in the history of the multi-ethnic nation, all citizens will now be identified by one term, Fijian. For the past more than four decades, the Minister pointed out, nationals of Fiji had been identified by their ethnicity. The term Fijian was reserved for indigenous Fijians, while people of Indian origin were known as Indians and later as Indo-Fijians, and other minorities were classified as Europeans and other races. The elections are scheduled to be conducted under a new electoral system by September end. “This time the elections will be held on the basis of one man, one vote and one value to the vote,” said the Minister, who was on a three-day tour to Delhi.

Fiji’s elected government was overthrown in late 2006 by its military commander, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, in a bloodless coup following disagreements with Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase. In 2009, Bainimarama, who had taken over as Prime Minister, assured the people that general elections would be held by 2014. The process to hold the elections was initiated with the promulgation of a new Constitution in September 2013. It got further impetus with Bainimarama announcing his intention to step down from his military position by the end of February and contest the elections. He also announced plans to form a new political party.

In the seven years of its rule, the military regime tightened controls and made far-reaching changes in Fiji’s society. It abolished the overarching influence and power of the indigenous tribal hierarchy, the Great Council of Chiefs. It appointed a five-member Constitution Commission to draft a new Constitution with international experts, but once a draft document was prepared after widespread public consultations, it was summarily rejected by Bainimarama. The plan for a Constituent Assembly was shelved and Bainimarama instituted a new process to prepare a fresh Constitution under the supervision of the Attorney General. The new Constitution was promulgated in September 2013.

After living under a military regime for more than seven years, Fijians are displaying visible enthusiasm for elections. About 80 per cent of the eligible voters have registered themselves on the electronic voter registration system. The voting age has been lowered from 21 to 18 years. The Fiji government has started the process of registering overseas voters, beginning with Australia. Under the Fiji Decree of 2009, Fiji allowed dual citizenship for its diaspora. There are large migrant communities of Indians and indigenous Fijians in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States and Britain. Five teams of officials have travelled to major Australian cities to carry out the overseas registration for those who hold a valid Fiji passport.

Four political parties have registered to contest the elections: the Fiji Labour Party, the National Federation Party, the Social Democratic Liberal Party and the People’s Democratic Party. Political parties are required to obtain 5,000 members from all regions of the country to apply for registration. The People’s Democratic Party, which was formed last year, grew out of the Fiji Trades Union Congress and some civil society groups to offer a new political option.

Under the new Constitution, Members of Parliament will be elected on a single national Constitution under a system of proportional representation. Parliament is the highest legislative body; there is no Senate or Upper House. Parliament will elect the President, who will also be the commander-in-chief of the Fiji Armed Forces. The strength of the House of Representatives stands reduced from 70 to 50. Voters will choose the candidates from a single national electoral roll based on an open-list proportional representation system. Political parties will win seats according to the total votes cast for their candidates, but the political parties and independent candidates will need to obtain at least 5 per cent of the votes to win a seat.

When Fiji gained independence from Britain in 1970, the Constitution enshrined the special position of indigenous Fijians and their inalienable rights over the land. The House of Representatives provided for a racial balance in the House with 22 seats for each of the two major communities, the indigenous Fijians and the people of Indian descent, and eight seats for other minorities or general electors. Elections took place for open and communal seats; in the communal seats, indigenous Fijians voted for Fijians and Indians for Indian candidates, while in the open seats all ethnic groups voted for a common candidate.

The race-based electoral system was meant to give the two major ethnic groups an equal share in power and to protect indigenous Fijians from the numerically superior Indians. At the time of independence, Indians, descendants of indentured agricultural workers brought to work on the sugarcane plantations, outnumbered indigenous Fijians. Steady migration of Indians from Fiji after the 1987 coup has reduced their numbers. The indigenous Fijian community is now the largest minority in the multiracial country.

The electoral system reinforced racial politics in Fiji, with politicians focussing on their own ethnic groups. A racially motivated military coup in 1987 overthrew the Indian-dominated government, and an armed coup in 2000 ousted the government headed by Mahendra Chaudhry, Fiji’s first Prime Minister of Indian origin. In 2006, Bainimarama overthrew the Qarase government following differences with it over granting amnesty to those involved in the 2000 coup and an attempted mutiny. The new Constitution attempts to move beyond racial divisions by providing for a common electoral roll and a national one-constituency election.

The preamble of the new Constitution recognises the indigenous people, or the iTaukei, and their land ownership and their unique culture, customs, traditions and language. Similarly, it recognises the indigenous people of the island of Rotuma, descendents of indentured labourers from India and the Pacific islands and of immigrants and settlers, and their culture and customs. It declares them all Fijians united by a common and equal citizenry. In an effort to forge a common identity, the teaching of Fijian, Hindi and English has been made compulsory in primary schools.

Restoring diplomatic ties

Fiji was suspended from the Commonwealth in September 2009 for its failure to make progress towards restoring democracy. Australia and New Zealand restored full diplomatic relations with the country in 2012 after the government undertook measures to facilitate the holding of elections in 2014. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop visited Suva, the capital, recently and met Bainimarama in a move to restore ties with the Fiji government in all spheres, including defence. Outraged at the 2006 coup, Australia had imposed stringent sanctions against the Fiji government. Julie Bishop said the high number of voters registering was a positive sign that people in Fiji were ready for an election and were looking forward to it. New Zealand has also begun easing the sanctions it had imposed on Fiji. On a visit to Fiji as part of a Pacific Islands Forum Ministerial Contact Group delegation, New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully said Fiji was making good progress in the process of holding elections.

Fiji’s economy has been stagnant since 2006 with negligible growth (less than 1 per cent) in gross domestic product (GDP) compared with 2.4 per cent growth in 2001-05. However, tourism, which had suffered a decline after the 2006 coup, has picked up in recent years. Despite the official stance of the Australian government on Fiji, tourists from Australia and New Zealand have been flocking to the sunny beaches of the country.

According to media reports in Fiji, Bainimarama talked about a range of post-election situations and said he was prepared for whatever results the elections would throw up.

India fully supports the election process; it has agreed to provide indelible ink, vehicles for the Election Commission and training for election and parliamentary officials. Welcoming the elections, Minister for External Affairs Salman Khurshid said Indian assistance was part of “our contribution towards Fiji’s march towards a democratic polity”. India welcomes the “positive developments initiated by the Fiji authorities for the population of Indian origin in recent times,” he added.

While the mood for elections is building up, some politicians and civil society activists have expressed misgivings about the way the elections will be held. Some have expressed reservations about several provisions in the new Constitution. Also, the government has to undertake certain steps before the elections, such as appointing an election supervisor. It has still to issue the election decree and prepare the legal framework for the elections. Trade unions have criticised the new Constitution’s provisions that bar public officials, a term which includes police officers, army officers and trade union office-bearers, from being members of political parties. The provision has implications for the People’s Democratic Party and the National Federation Party, which grew out of the trade union movement. A political party faces derecognition if it allows trade union officials to be associated with it.

The political parties have criticised the idea of one-day elections as “virtually impossible”. They have cited the enormous logistical difficulties of holding elections throughout the country on a single day given the geographical constraints of remote islands and difficult-to-access mountain regions.

An interesting feature of the September elections is the presence of a large percentage of young voters as a result of the lowering of the voting age. Fiji’s political parties are beginning to realise that this section of voters could be the deciding factor in the election. They are in the process of evolving strategies to woo the young voters, a large section of whom was born after the first military coup in 1987.

According to some political observers, young Fijians are likely to vote for an end to political instability, which has hampered the country’s development these many years.

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