The Fiji Times » Fiji’s choice of Prime Minister


When the Australian Labor Party last came to power (in 2007), Australia imposed sanctions on Fiji following the country’s fourth coup in 2006.

Relations soured before they got better and, partly at the instigation of Australia, Fiji was suspended from the Pacific Islands Forum in 2009.

Fast forward to 2022. The leader of Fiji’s 2006 coup is now its prime minister, Fiji chairs the Pacific Islands Forum and is the first Pacific country that Australia’s new foreign minister, Penny Wong, visited.

In fact, not only is Voreqe Bainimarama Prime Minister, but his main rival in elections due later this year is the leader of Fiji’s first coup in 1987, Sitiveni Rabuka.

How did it go ? The only coup leader to actually suffer from his actions was George Speight, who led Fiji’s third coup.

Significantly, Speight was not a soldier and was only supported by one faction of the military.

He was sentenced in 2000 to life imprisonment and remains in prison to this day.

On the other hand, Mr. Bainimarama and Mr. Rabuka were senior military officials. And Fiji’s constitution was rewritten after their two coups to absolve them of any wrongdoing.

Mr Rabuka was the pioneer of the rewrite of the constitution and the first putschist to become prime minister, returning five years after his coup to successfully contest the 1992 elections. He served as prime minister until 1999.

Mr Bainimarama was the first putschist in Fiji to decide not to back down, but rather to stay in politics

He gave himself eight years of uncontested rule before facing the election, enough time to put him in a position to win. Fiji’s coups were bad for both the country’s economy and its democratic standing. Today it is classified by Freedom House as “partially free”.

Electorally, it has been difficult, if not impossible so far, to dislodge Mr. Bainimarama from power.

This in turn made those who wanted him think that their only way to reject him was to support another strongman, another former putschist and prime minister.

Mr. Rabuka is considered more moderate than some of the other alternatives to Mr. Bainimarama.

But also, only Mr. Rabuka, it is now believed, can face Mr. Bainimarama. Is this progress towards democracy or the entrenchment of a putschist culture?

Sixteen years have passed since the last coup in 2006. If Fiji were on the road to democracy, one could accept this domination of political leaders turned putschists as a necessary transition, a price to pay to bring Fiji back to liberal democracy. manners. If only that was the case.

It is certainly true that the coups caused a massive emigration of Indo-Fijians, whose share of the population has fallen from a menacing 50% in the late 1980s to only around 34% today. Ethnic tensions have eased, but by no means disappeared.

In the meantime, Fiji remains stuck as, at best, a semi-democracy.

Just last year, several MPs were arrested for opposing government legislation.

A recent US government report on Fiji finds credible reports of “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment by government agents [and] serious restrictions on freedom of expression and the media, including censorship; substantial interference with freedom of peaceful assembly; and human trafficking”.

A women’s group is challenging a new law that requires married women who change their names to also change their birth certificates if they want to vote, a rule introduced last year that could disenfranchise up to 100,000 women .

The change apparently stems from a court case involving an opposition MP that angered the government.

The courts refused to disqualify the MP based on the name he used to register to vote – not the one on his birth certificate. (The MP in question has since been sent to prison on other charges.)

The government also, early last year, expelled the vice-chancellor of the University of the South Pacific (USP) and denied him entry into the country. Thailand offers perhaps the closest parallel to Fiji.

In this country, after enduring decades of alternating coups and democracy, the leader of the 2014 coup, General Prayut Chan-o-cha, decided that he would not relinquish power and shifted from its military role to political leadership. Since then, he has remained prime minister.

However, while Thailand has had far more coups than Fiji, it is only in the latter that we see two former coup leaders vying for power.

The situation in Fiji appears to be widely accepted. In 2014, former soldier-turned-academic Jone Baledrokadroka described the Fijian people’s “acquiescence in military intervention” as “a feature of politics in the country”. Many critics of the coup left the country; some died.

A number of people linked to the coup and/or subsequent governments now hold leadership positions in regional and international organizations.

International partners have also changed course. The Australian Coalition, when it came to power in 2013, promised and presented a new, more constructive approach to Fiji, on the grounds that the adversarial approach of previous years was pushing Fiji into the arms of China.

In the decade since, as concerns about China have intensified, those about democracy and human rights have been put on the back burner.

Mr. Rabuka first faced Mr. Bainimarama in the last election in 2018 and lost. His prospects would be better this time around according to some comments, but the lack of a united opposition makes predictions difficult.

If Mr Bainimarama is defeated in the next election, it will be the first time Fiji has changed prime minister at the ballot box since 1999.

That in itself would be a victory for democracy. However, the fact remains that regardless of the outcome of this year’s election, the country’s next prime minister is highly likely to be someone who came to power through a military coup.

This is a clear sign of how deeply rooted his army is in Fijian politics.

• This article first appeared on Devpolicy Blog (devpolicy.org), from the Development Policy Center of the Australian National University. • SADHANA SEN is the Regional Communications Advisor at the Development Policy Centre. STE-PHEN HOWES is Director of the Development Policy Center and Professor of Economics at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University. The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Fiji Times.

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