Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama will be returning to office after his FijiFirst party secured its second electoral victory since the restoration of democracy in 2014. Although the vote for FijiFirst was diminished from previous election (losing around 10 percent of its vote share), the result will still enable Bainimarama to cement his legitimacy as a democratic leader, after seizing power in a military coup in 2006 (he also led the countercoup of 2000 before relinquishing power). The main opposition party, the Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA), led by another former coup leader, Sitiveni Rabuka, won around 40 percent of the vote, strengthening its numbers in parliament.
When Bainimarama overthrew the government in 2006 his aim was to reshape Fiji’s institutions in a fashion that would bring an end to the political instability that had plagued the country. Fiji’s culture of coups had been fuelled by issues of communal identity; the rights of the iTaukei (indigenous Fijians), against those of Indo-Fijians, who had formed a majority of the population from the mid-1950s to the late-1980s. While the social impact of the various coups led to significant emigration of Indo-Fijians (the group comprised 38 percent of the population as of the 2007 census, and is most likely a smaller percentage today, but data on ethnicity from the 2017 census was not released), Bainimarama saw fit to make wholesale changes to the way the country was structured in order to revolutionize the country’s relationship to itself.
Bainimarama’s initial focus was to rewrite the country’s constitution to inhibit the ability for communal divisions to form (at least in the country’s official structures). While the terms iTaukei and Indo-Fijians remain in use informally, the 2013 Constitution makes no reference to ethnicity at all, referring to all citizens as simply “Fijian,” and citizenship rights are conferred equally regardless of ethnic background. This was a considerable shift from previous constitutions that sought to enshrine the political supremacy of iTaukei.
The new constitution also established a whole new parliamentary system, with a single national constituency elected by proportional representation, in order to create a national rather than regional focus for parliamentarians. The new parliamentary system also abolished the form of ethnic bloc voting that divided parliamentary seats by ethnicity and stipulated that citizens must vote for candidates from their own communal group (with structures in place to afford greater weight to iTaukei votes). Bainimarama also disbanded the hereditary Great Council of Chiefs, whose influence traditionally selected the president and vice president, as well as a large proportion of the Senate (Bainimarama also abolished the Senate). Bainimarama’s changes revised the traditional norms and structure of Fijian politics.
Many of these reforms are admirable, and with hope will achieve the aims of creating a far more stable and harmonious society in Fiji. However, despite last week’s reasonably smooth election process (interrupted only by the weather), the country’s democratic status remains less than complete. A number of decrees from prior to the restoration of democracy remain in force. This includes the Media Decree, which curbs the freedoms of the press and encourages self-censorship (Bainimarama remains notoriously sensitive to criticism). There’s also the Public Order Decree, which restricts the ability of groups to hold public meetings.
Bainimarama’s ambitions were not only directed toward a domestic reformation. He has also displayed a desire to carve out a new role for Fiji on the global stage. After the 2006 coup, the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) — the primary multilateral forum for the South Pacific — suspended Fiji’s membership in the hope that this would expedite a transition back to democracy. However, instead the move emboldened Bainimarama, who used the situation to carve out a leadership role for Fiji that circumvented the dominance of Canberra and Wellington inside the PIF. Bainimarama still refuses to attend PIF meetings, even with Fiji reinstalled as a member.
Bainimarama decided that not only should Pacific Island countries be better organized in their efforts toward global diplomacy, but he envisaged Fiji taking on the role as the Pacific’s hub. Fiji could use its position as a Pacific Island state of significant relative weight to gather the mutual concerns, agendas, and voices of other Pacific Island countries for a global diplomatic push. This push has primarily been concerned with issues of climate change, where Bainimarama has been a fierce advocate. This resulted in Fiji gaining the presidency of the COP 23 United Nations Climate Change Conference (a position Fiji will hold until December), and allowing the country to put the concerns of Pacific Island states (and other small, developing states) at the forefront of climate change discussions.
Although Bainimarama may have hoped for a better result in last week’s election to further legitimize his revolution, he will still control a majority in the parliament and be able to continue pursue his ambitious agenda. His authoritarian instincts should remain a concern — he and his attorney-general, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, effectively run a two-man operation with multiple ministries divided between the pair. But such is his gravity within the country that it is unknown how Fiji may proceed if future democratic results are less favorable to him. This makes Bainimarama simultaneously the source of stability and instability, with the country able to embark on bold and potentially fruitful initiatives while Bainimarama is in charge, but potentially return to instability should he be voted out.
While the 2013 Constitution may have eradicated the ethnic divisions within the state structures, it didn’t diminish the outsized role the military plays in Fijian society. The document states that “It shall be the overall responsibility of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces to ensure at all times the security, defense, and well-being of Fiji and all Fijians.” This is quite flexible wording that could be used to justify further military interference in the country’s political affairs. While Bainimarama may now be a civilian, he still maintains a psychological hold over the institution, with it being more than likely that the military sees its interests as being aligned with those of its former head.