As 2022 came to a close, Fijians voted out Frank Bainimarama and his FijiFirst party, bringing 16 years of authoritarian rule to an end. Here, Professor Steven Ratuva, a Fijian academic based in Aotearoa, and a frequent visitor to Fiji, looks at the impact of that election result — for the Pacific Island nation as well as the region.
Visiting my homeland a few days after the elections in December, it was clear to me that the pulse of the nation had changed tremendously. I could feel a profound seismic social and psychological transformation.
The fear and anguish which once hung in the air like a morning mist had been replaced by a euphoric mood — people felt relieved that the regime which had ruled them for 16 years, sometimes with fascist-type tactics, was at last history.
The spontaneous celebrations on the streets when the new coalition government was announced was a testimony to the sudden release of suppressed energy after years of authoritarian rule.
I found myself immersed in this newfound, triumphant atmosphere, hoping that it will last beyond the political honeymoon period.
The victory for the multiracial three-party coalition — which consists of the People’s Alliance Party (PAP), the National Federation Party (NFP), and the Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA) — ended Frank Bainimarama’s rule since the 2006 “creeping coup” which saw the overthrow of Laisenia Qarase’s democratically-elected government.
Bainimarama’s dubious justifications for this was the need for a “clean-up” of Fiji’s political system — and to combat, in the name of “multiculturalism”, what he saw as Qarase’s ethno-nationalist and pro-Indigenous policies.
That was the story he publicly propounded to provide the coup with the moral high ground, and to mobilise support from minority communities in Fiji as well as the international community.
But many Fijians saw another motive behind the coup: Bainimarama’s attempt to avoid being prosecuted and even convicted and jailed for treason. The police had a warrant for his arrest for threatening to overthrow the government months before the coup, and the only way out for him was to remove the institutions which were going to put him behind bars for life.
The so-called “clean-up” campaign became the narrative to justify a whole range of forced transformations — among them:
The removal of Indigenous Fijians from positions of power thus destroying the vibrant Taukei ruling and middle classes.
The imposition of draconian laws to limit freedom of expression.
The militarisation of the political and bureaucratic structures through direct involvement of military personnel in state governance as well as institutionalisation of centralised command and control system of management in the civil service.
The creation of business, political and family systems of patronage and nepotism.
And the centralisation of authority, policy-thinking and decision-making in Bainimarama and Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, the Attorney General (AG) and Minister for Economy. The 2013 Constitution which the two of them created gave the AG more power than in any other Commonwealth country.
These are just some broad examples and exclude a range of specific policies and decrees.
To many, the FFP strategy felt like a social engineering project to recreate a compliant population through the exercise of institutional coercion and fear. These became normalised through populist strategies such as extensive propagation of imagery and manipulative control of the national narrative through its preferred media — notably the Fiji Sun and the publicly funded Fiji Broadcasting Corporation which runs a TV station and six radio stations broadcasting in Fijian, Hindi and English. It was headed by the former AG’s younger brother, Riyaz Sayed-Khaiyum.
The message communicated to the citizens was that Bainimarama was a strong and empathetic leader; a man of the people. Control and manipulation of people’s consciousness was effectively used to subdue resistance and generate loyalty.
This worked in the beginning, enabling Bainimarama’s FijiFirst Party to win the 2014 and 2018 elections, with the help of the 2013 Constitution. This was because of what political scientists refer to as the “coattail effect”: using a popular leader to draw in votes in a proportional representation (PR) electoral system.
The PR system which Fiji uses requires that the number of seats won by a party should be proportional to the percentage of votes gained. While FijiFirst was able to win on its own in 2014 and 2018, the party failed to replicate this success in 2022.
Of the 55 seats, FijiFirst won 26, People’s Alliance Party (PAP) 21, National Fiji Party (NFP) 5 and Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA) 3. The results meant that any new government had to be a coalition. PAP and NFP had the foresight to sign a pre-election coalition agreement, so for several days following the election result, there was a tie of 26 seats each between FFP and the PAP-NFP coalition. After extensive lobbying and wooing of SODELPA by both sides, the PAP-NFP coalition won the tussle and a new three-party coalition was formed.
It’s important to note here that the PR system was designed to ensure participation of smaller parties in government, which is why coalition governments have become the norm in places like Israel, Columbia, Finland, Latvia, Sweden, Nepal and Netherlands, to name a few.
New Zealand also has the PR system — the party list version — but together with the first-past-the-post system (person with largest vote wins), and this is why it’s called Mixed Member Proportional or MMP.
The point I want to make is that future governments in Fiji are likely to be in the form of coalitions — and parties such as FijiFirst should be prepared for that.
New changes and controversies: Cleaning up the “clean-up”!
The new coalition government didn’t hesitate to make immediate changes but perhaps it moved too fast in certain areas.
The new AG started talking about constitutional changes using extra-constitutional means, again a result of the deep frustration shared by many about the anomalies in the supreme law of the land which included the concentration of power in the executive, the excessive power given to the military in terms of its security role, and the process of constitutional amendment itself, to name a few. This prompted the military to caution the coalition about the need to follow the due process of the law, which some saw as a veiled threat of sorts.
The new Minister for Home Affairs quickly engaged in firefighting by speaking directly with the military commander about the need for consultation between the civilian government and the military, and for the commander to refrain from making media statements on matters of security in public, and to go through the ministry first.
A few heads also rolled. There were changes among some civil service permanent secretaries and government corporations. An interesting case was the CEO of the Fiji Broadcasting Corporation, Riyaz Sayed-Khaiyum (who you’ll recall is the former AG’s younger brother). He was dismissed by the new board for abuse of office, after they dug up financial records showing he was being paid $32,000 a month plus perks while the company, which was propped up by millions of dollars of government grants, was almost insolvent.
The new Minister for Sugar also revealed that a former CEO of the Fiji Sugar Corporation (which came under Bainimarama’s portfolio) was being paid more than $800,000 plus other perks (including a $20,000 a month rented villa at the luxurious Denarau Island in Nadi) while the cane farmers were barely surviving and the company was insolvent and had to be consistently bailed out by the government.
Investigations of abuse are continuing, and many more jaw-dropping stories will no doubt emerge. It now appears that the Bainimarama regime’s ‘clean-up’ narrative, which was used to justify the 2006 coup, concealed deep-seated nepotism, patronage, abuse and corruption.
The irony is that the new coalition government is now engaged cleaning up the previous government’s so called clean-up campaign.
Pacific regional implications
Over the years, Fiji has been largely seen as a regional “bully” which has been shrewdly and selfishly leveraging its central and dominant position to its own advantage. This included transforming Air Pacific from a regional airline into a national airline, and hosting and influencing regional organisations such as the University of the South Pacific, pushing its own agenda in various international and regional spaces at the cost of regionalism.
In addition, Fiji controls more than 80 percent of all regional trade outside New Zealand and Australia, and literally monopolises air travel in the region. By pushing for the removal of New Zealand and Australia from the Pacific Island Forum, they had probably hoped not only to even the score for the fact that the two countries have lobbied hard for Fiji’s suspension from the PIF, but also to pave the way for Fiji’s regional dominance.
This concentration of power was exacerbated by what has been seen as the Bainimarama government’s Fiji-centric arrogance and lack of regional empathy.
Many regional leaders including those from Australia and New Zealand would have breathed a sigh of relief after the defeat of the FijiFirst government. The new coalition government has a lot of work to replot Fiji’s regional strategy, repair the political dent Fiji has made to the region, and re-establish the trust and goodwill with the leaders.
The new prime minister has started the process by successfully inviting Kiribati to rejoin the Pacific Islands Forum after it refused to attend the Suva Forum leaders meeting in 2022. The $100 million which Bainimarama’s government had refused to pay to the University of the South Pacific (USP) will now be paid, and the regional and international staff at the university will feel at ease knowing that their work permits, which they feared were being used as political leverage and a means of direct control and interference by the Fiji government, will be more secure. The expulsion of the USP vice-chancellor from Fiji was a major case in point.
The new government will need to change its regional strategy from one based on self-righteous arrogance to an approach driven by regional empathy, cooperative spirit and political humility.
Fiji will need to relax its stringent air services policies, which has undermined smaller regional airlines, and allow Fiji Airways to cooperate with, rather than compete against them. The new government should also change Fiji’s regional climate policy from being a self-serving moneymaking enterprise to a genuine effort in saving the Pacific and planet from the climate-related calamities.
The fact that the climate portfolio is back with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and prime minister is a welcome change from its previous location under the Ministry of Economy where it was used as a debt-paying cash cow.
As someone who has developed an almost statesman-type political persona, Sitiveni Rabuka, with his diplomatic skills, empathy and humble disposition, will stand out as a regional leader of note, especially at a time when the Pacific Islands Forum is engaged in a major regional transformation, guided by the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent.
The new government, like other coalition governments, has not fully settled down yet and is still vulnerable to internal tensions and external pressures. FijiFirst has tried various means to destabilise and break up the coalition, but so far has failed.
They will continue to oppose the ruling coalition not only as part of their paid responsibility as official parliamentary opposition, but also inspired by their misplaced sense of entitlement to continue to “rule Fiji for ever,” as Bainimarama suggested during the 2022 campaign. The resilience of this coalition will ensure some stability and optimism after years of authoritarian rule and the use of intimidation and fear as strategies for political power.
One can only admire the resilience of Fiji’s people. They’ve endured the worst and they’ve been able to rebuild economically, socially and politically after every coup and crisis. With tourism reaching more than 600,000 in 2022, within a few months of the opening of the borders, and the new national spirit of optimism, I share the sentiments of a friend I met in Suva in January that “this is a new era”.
One of the challenges is how to keep the balance between Indigenous rights and multiracialism, one of the main stumbling blocks in Fiji’s colonial and post-colonial history.
A significant factor today is the waning of the ethnic divide and tension that we saw in past decades, and the way the new generation is able to cross the ethno-cultural boundaries with ease.
If the buoyant, festive and celebratory mood I observed on the streets of Fiji among the Taukei, Indo-Fijians, Europeans, part-Europeans, Chinese, Pacific Islanders and others that make up Fiji’s multicultural society can be used as a gauge for what the future holds, then there is reason to be confident — albeit still with a degree of caution.
Steven Ratuva is an award-winning interdisciplinary Fijian scholar. He is Distinguished Professor and Pro-Vice Chancellor Pacific at the University of Canterbury, and the director of the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies. He also chairs the International Political Science Association research committee on climate security and planetary politics, and has other international, regional and national research leadership roles.
The opinions expressed in these articles are his own and don’t express the views of the University of Canterbury.
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