Posted on April 14, 2009

Democratic Future Fades for Fiji

Phil Mercer, BBC News, April 13, 2009

As Fiji’s armed forces strengthen their control over the troubled South Pacific archipelago, there are warnings the country risks further international isolation and economic hardship as democracy continues to fade.

A turbulent week has seen the military government that seized power in 2006 declared illegal by a panel of senior judges, which prompted an ailing president to tear up the constitution, sack the judiciary and reinstate army strongman Commodore Frank Bainimarama.

“The country’s about to fall off a cliff,” Professor Helen Ware from Australia’s University of New England told the BBC.

“They’re going to be in an impossible situation, they don’t have a constitution, or a legally constituted government or any obvious way of getting themselves back onto the straight and narrow.”

For almost a decade Commodore Bainimarama, an indigenous Fijian, has been a mighty figure in domestic politics.

As head of the country’s most powerful organisation, the military, he guided Fiji through the chaos of a nationalist uprising in 2000, only to eventually turn on the man he helped to become prime minister in that uncertain post-coup period, Laisenia Qarase, a retired banker.

Ethnic tensions

The Qarase government, accused of dishonesty and of discriminating against Fiji’s ethnic Indian minority, was ousted by Bainimarama’s troops in December 2006.

“I think he [Cmdr Bainimarama] is genuine in his views about both racism and corruption,” explained Prof Ware.

“Fiji’s always had a difficulty in balancing the rights of the native Fijians against the Indians who were originally brought in as indentured labourers.

“Like many people who lead coups, they don’t necessarily start off with bad motives.”

The army commander, a former UN peacekeeper, has repeatedly resisted international calls to set a timetable for fresh elections, insisting that before democracy is restored, he must cleanse a rotten political system and to create a fairer, multi-racial society.

But more than two years after becoming interim prime minister, Commodore Bainimarama’s plans appear vague and worryingly open-ended.

Critics will ask if such a forceful character would be able to hand power back fully to an elected civilian.

His close ally, President Ratu Josefa Iloilo, has indicated that the military administration will serve for another five years and that Fijians will not get the chance to choose their own destiny at the ballot box until September 2014.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said recent events had made Fiji even more of a diplomatic outcast.

“They further isolate Fiji from the international community, they run the very grave risk of Fiji’s economic and social circumstances further deteriorating and, of course, to suggest that an election will be held in 2014 is nothing more than a sham,” Mr Smith said.

Canberra expects Fiji to be formally suspended from both the Pacific Islands Forum and the Commonwealth.

However, Daryl Tarte, chairman of the Fiji Media Council, believes such steps would simply amount to gesture politics.

“I don’t think there is anything the international community can do,” he told the BBC News website from his home in the Fijian capital, Suva.

“This is something we have to deal with ourselves here in Fiji.”

Press curtailed

There is likely to be little, if any, public dissent against the country’s new order, but under emergency measures military censors have moved in to stop the press publishing stories that could cause “disorder” or “promote disaffection or public alarm.”

“It is tragic as far as the media is concerned,” said Mr Tarte.

“The Bill of Rights no longer exists and that means we no longer have the right freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

“The media are all being censored.”

Commodore Bainimarama has promised the people a “fresh start”, but Fijians will no doubt wonder where his authoritarian style is taking them and their fragile country.