At 39 years old, Fiji is still moulding segments of its socio-economic and political processes. A relatively young South Pacific nation, the country has walked the tight rope through four government overthrows in two decades. Now it seriously wants that single digit figure to remain static. Critical to this objective is the need to urgently address the root causes of these political and social unrests, and to pave the way to true parliamentary democracy.
The Government of Fiji, led by Prime Minister Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama, has singled out the country’s electoral system as among the major stumbling blocks at the community and national levels because of its discernible racial undertones.
Government now seeks to address this through changing the electoral system from communal voting where constituents voted along ethnic lines, thus contributing to a racially polarised nation, to a more unifying and all-embracing system where voters from fewer open constituencies choose a representative who they believe will best represent their collective interests, irrespective of race, gender or creed.
The need to reform the electoral system to place emphasis on equal suffrage and to clearly reflect a multi-racial and progressive society had been recognised as a real need for some time. However, despite this public knowledge, certain sections of the international community, political activists and commentators, continue to relentlessly call for early elections.
This begs the question of whether holding the elections for the mere sake of adhering to the norms of constitutional democracy will help rid the country of its coup culture, or will this only offer a short-term solution? Prime Minister Bainimarama has voiced repeatedly the need to address the root causes of the coups first and foremost. The likelihood of the Prime Minister and government backing down from this objective is nil. This reflects an innate understanding of the myriad of issues, many of them latent, facing the country.
The military, the PM says, was driven by its desire to do right for the country and its citizens when it took over executive authority of the nation in December 2006. It sees itself as the last bastion of hope in as far as security is concerned. As part of the security forces, the military will need to intervene and assist the police force to bring back law and order and stabilise any political and social upheaval. The security forces now see it more important to deal with the root causes of the political upheavals instead of fire-fighting every time a government takeover happens.
The military proved this point in 2000 when armed civilians took over the elected government and held the nation to ransom. Led by Commodore Bainimarama, the military rescued the nation and returned governance to a civilian government. However, PM Bainimarama says the expectations of the nation were not met. Instead, the then elected government introduced more discriminatory policies. PM Bainimarama says this, and other issues that needed to be addressed, which the current government continue to do so, include but are not limited to corruption and scams in government that were fuelled by a powerful alliance between corrupt politicians, civil servants and unscrupulous businesspersons; the lack of political will to push for social and economic reforms; the need to speed up infrastructural development and to ensure equitable distribution of resources throughout the country; and the need to implement radical changes to the system of governance.
While patriotism is encouraged, legislations such as the iQoliqoli bill – intended to uphold indigenous rights to foreshore grounds – and the Unity and Land Tribunal bills were seen as extreme institutionalising of indigenous affairs. Such policies would have further entrenched the racial divide, hence the catalysts for the 2006 event.
Addressing the United Nations General Assembly in September 2007, PM Bainimarama described the journey Fiji has come through since gaining its independence from Britain in 1970 – “…a young nation on a rather shaky foundation with a race-based Constitution, one which rigidly compartmentalised our communities.” In his address, the PM further expressed that “the democracy which came to be practised in Fiji was marked by divisive, adversarial, inward-looking, race-based politics.”
“The legacy of leadership, at both community and national levels, was a fractured nation.” The need for change has therefore become an absolute necessity. The PM says relevant changes will also be carried out in the administration of land, a highly valued commodity in Pacific Island communities and Fiji is no exception. The gist of land reforms will take into account the need for more productive use of idle land and a fairer distribution of land lease proceeds among the landowners.
The PM adds that government will ensure the land reforms accommodate the interests of all concerned parties. Government is keen to hold general elections. When? Five years from now – in 2014. From now until then, government intends to lay the foundation for a real and meaningful democratic society. In line with that, government has embarked on various restructure programmes fulfilling its 5-year strategic framework for change. Announced last month, this now public document will guide government’s programme of work in key political and socio-economic institutions. Government, therefore, has a mammoth task ahead to implement its plans. Agreeably, five years is a batter of an eyelid – extremely short period and the Prime Minister knows that. But government aims to strategically work within its means.
A free and fair general election is also what the international community wants, among others, albeit at the earliest. Government understands that. But it also believes that for that to happen, the necessary changes will need to take place first. These changes will form part of the solution to break the cycle of coups in Fiji and to achieve government’s ultimate vision – to build a better Fiji for all its citizens under a true parliamentary democracy.
Key Targets & Timelines: 2009 to 2014
2009 to 2012: Socio-economic and infrastructural developments• including land reforms.
2012: Creation of new and modern Constitution.•
September 2014: General Elections to be held.•