Democracy for Fiji?

26 November 2012

With Fiji’s military rulers promising to send the country to the polls in 2014, JONE BALEDROKADROKA examines whether elections will be free and fair.

In 2006, Commodore Voreqe Frank Bainimarama overthrew Fiji’s democratically-elected government led by Laisenia Qarase. Having ruled by decree ever since, the military regime now promises democratic general elections in 2014 under a new constitution. The Pacific Islands Forum meeting in the Cook Islands in August 2012 acknowledged in its communiqué that the “interim government has made progress towards democracy”. However, the path in this progress towards democracy has been fraught with allegations of continuing military oversight and interference in the constitution-making process.

Delivering the keynote address at the Democracy in the Pacific Conference in October this year, New Zealand’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Hon Murray McCully noted that “this year Fiji has taken some encouraging steps to prepare for elections in 2014”.The foreign minister went on to say:

We have been encouraged by the firm intention to hold elections, and by the machinery that has been put in place so far to make them possible. A Constitutional Commission was established earlier this year to conduct public consultations on a new constitution, and the process of registering voters was completed at the end of August. New Zealand has supported both of these activities.

McCully also made the point that when he took office a couple of years ago elections were not certain given the Fiji regime’s belligerent stance to democracy in general. After the forging of warmer diplomatic relations with Australia and New Zealand, the question now is whether the elections will be free and fair.The positive outlook by McCully, though, was not shared by Major General Sitiveni Rabuka, the former Prime Minister of Fiji who delivered the conference’s second key note address. Rabuka said that he was unsure about the 2014 Fijian elections and thathe “hoped the elections would go ahead, but that that hope is not based on very good grounds”.[1] Rabuka also controversially stated that:

The Military has always had a presence in the Fiji culture. We think of militant ways of changing things, rather than waiting for the next elections. It may be that we have corporate cooperation in 2014 where together the government and the military keep tabs on our civil military relations to prevent things from breaking down again, as has happened many times in Fiji.[2]

On the same topic of military intervention, I presented a paper, The role of the military in Post-Colonial Fiji. The media reported it in these terms:

A former land force commander in Fiji, Jone Baledrokadroka, says the Fiji military’s role as a peacekeeper in overseas conflicts has helped transform its mindset and influenced its role in recent Fiji politics. He argues there have been unintended consequences of peacekeeping that are pervasive in Fiji’s present day military. He says politicisation of the military also dates from an earlier overseas campaign against communist insurgents, the Emergency of the 1950s. Mr Baledrokadroka says there needs to be a Commission of Inquiry into the ethos of the military followed by reform of the institution. He also presented research showing more than 60 members of the military are playing a role in the present day Fiji government. Mr Baledrokadroka was imprisoned following alleged involvement in a plot to kill the regime leader Commodore Frank Bainimarama. His studies also include the demise of the chiefly order in Fiji and he argues the Commodore sees himself as filling the seat of high chief.[3]

Rabuka’s assertion in fact substantiates my findings that the Fiji military has developed a mediator mindset in its present extended role in politics. The transformational process has been further enhanced by the Fiji military’s international peacekeeping role since the late 1970s.Whether this parallel process, involving military involvement in politics, will continue into the future is a bone of contention for Fiji political specialists.

In August, at the beginning of public hearings by the Constitution Commission,the chairman, Professor Yash Ghai insisted that, “there will be no government interference in the public consultations on the new constitution”.[4]To further illustrate the point, in July 2012, even before the five member Constitution Commission began soliciting public submissions, the regime promulgated a decree requiring immunity for those involved in the 2006 and earlier coups to be entrenched in the new constitution. In a press statement intended for the regime and the military, the Commissioners stated “this type of prospective immunity is most unusual, perhaps unique, and, we believe, undesirable”.[5]

Fiji’s major political stakeholders were scathing in their criticism of the integrity of the Constitution-making process and of the next phase, the selection of the constituent assembly that will deliberate on the draft Constitution. In an open letter that appeared on all the major Fiji pro-democracy blog sites, the key political party leaders, trade unionists and traditional high chiefs have put their names to a petition to the President Ratu Epeli Nailatikau calling for a caretaker government.[6]

Constitution making process time line
Meanwhile, the Commission has been given a timeline under the Fiji Constitutional Process (Constitution Commission) Decree 2012 which will see a draft constitution presented by January 2013.

The major political stakeholders and NGOs say the Constituent Assembly Decree gives the interim Prime Minister full control of the composition of the assembly. They say it is non-transparent. As a result, these major political stakeholders run the risk of being excluded from the Constituent Assembly and the critical phase where the draft constitution will pass into law

At the same time, Bainimarama has censured the Commission for appointing high chief, former Vice President and High Court judge Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi as a consultant to the Commission. These events are further evidence of Bainimarama’s antagonism towards Fiji’s chiefs and the church. Bainimarama took exception to Madraiwiwi, who in his capacity as high chief was part of his Bau district delegation that wanted Fiji declared a Christian state. Commission Chairman Yash Ghai responded that Ratu Joni had academic law experience, in particular local law, and had appeared before the Commission as a traditional leader. Madraiwiwi has since withdrawn from his position.

Many see Bainimarama’s close scrutiny of the Commission’s work as an endeavour to ensure he survives post-election Fiji in a powerful position, as his coup-making predecessor Rabuka did in 1992.The big question is whether the military will continue to play a key role in Fiji politics after the 2014 elections. This issue is now being faced by the framers of the new Constitution. The role of chiefs and the veneration of the church still play an important part in Indigenous Fijian politics, and some say they should be reflected in constitutional arrangements. Alarmingly, a new generation of young political leaders is not emerging as an alternative to the seasoned leaders given the oppressive and restrictive environment of Fiji politics in the last six years. And it is possible that the new Constitution, once it has been finalised by Bainimarama’s handpicked Constituent Assembly, might become a setback to democracy by spawning a military backed one-party state.

Jone Baledrokadroka is a former land force commander in Fiji and a PhD candidate at the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia program in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.


[1] Comsdev Canterbury, ‘Rabuka unsure about 2014 Fiji elections,’ 19 Oct 2012.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Radio New Zealand International, ‘Former Fiji military commander reveals research into military thinking,’ 22 Oct 2012.

[4] Australia Network News, ABC Radio, ‘Fiji begins public hearings on new constitution’, 06 Aug 2012.

[5] Fiji Constitution Commission Press Statement, 19 Jul 2012.

[6] ‘Fiji's paramount chiefs and key political parties petition President for a caretaker government’, 27 Oct 2012.


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