Saturday 10 Dec 2016 | 20:46 | SYDNEY
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Fiji Elections

A return to Democracy?

On 17 September Fiji will hold national elections to select the country's parliament, government and Prime Minister. They will be the first Fiji elections since the 2006 military coup led by Rear Admiral Voreqe 'Frank' Bainimarama that toppled the civilian government. Bainimarama has since ruled as military commander and now interim Prime Minister. The lead up to the elections, how legitimate the election is judged to be and which party can form government will have significant implications for Fiji itself and its relations with the wider region.

The Context

Fijian history and the past eight years of undemocratic rule combine to make these elections complex and difficult to call. Fiji has a history of coups. Members of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces have led coups to unseat governments twice in 1987 and 2006. The Fiji Government under Bainimarama has made the most far-reaching changes to Fiji. It has ruled by decree, replaced the constitution, suppressed the media, compromised the judiciary and sidelined traditionally powerful institutions in Fiji society such as the Great Council of Chiefs and the Methodist Church. The Fiji military remains a powerful domestic player and disproportionately large for a country of Fiji's size. It is also active internationally participating in UN missions in Sinai, Golan Heights and Iraq.

The Contenders

There are a number of parties contesting the Fiji elections but only a handful of serious contenders. A number of the parties are campaigning on returning democratic rights and media freedom in Fiji. However, the issues that appear to have the most relevance to ordinary Fijians are jobs, infrastructure, development, cost of living and land ownership.

Bainimarama's FijiFirst Party is widely considered the favourite to win the Fiji elections. FijiFirst's candidates are largely composed of cabinet ministers and officials from the current government. It campaigns on the achievements of the Bainimarama regime including delivery of infrastructure, free education and racial equality. FijiFirst benefits not only from incumbency but higher visibility, better funding, a timid media and greater campaigning opportunities compared with other parties in Fiji.

The Social Democratic Liberal Party or SODELPA is the successor party to the SDL party that held government prior to the 2006 Fiji military coup. SODELPA is led into the Fiji elections by Ro Teimumu Kepa, a female paramount chief and former MP. SODELPA will be a substantial force in Fijian politics as a party with Christian values and large appeal to i-Taukei (indigenous Fijian) voters. It runs on a platform of promising to restore pre-2006 Fijian democracy and institutions, poverty alleviation and development.

The National Federation Party, or NFP, is another pre-coup party with a long history in Fijian politics. NFP is led by economist Dr Biman Prasad and has traditionally drawn its support from Indo-Fijians. It is campaigning on a platform of decreasing the cost of living, lowering taxes and reviving the sugar industry.

The Fiji Labour Party (FLP) is led by Mahendra Chaudhry and is another establishment party re-entering Fijian politics. The FLP has held power twice in the past and has traditionally drawn its support from the Indo-Fijian community. It is campaigning on a similar platform of restoration of democracy and poverty reduction.

What the outcome means

Much is riding on the outcome of the election. The proportional representation, single electorate, system, to be used for the first time in this Fiji election, will make winning an outright majority difficult. Bainimarama may have to negotiate a coalition with another party, an option he has repeatedly dismissed.

The outcome of the election also has consequences for Fiji's external relations. Australia and New Zealand have relaxed their previously tough policies against the Bainimarama regime in the expectation that the Fiji elections will lead to a full restoration of democracy. If the polls are declared free and fair by international observers, diplomatic and military ties will be restored and Fiji's suspension from the Pacific Islands Forum will be lifted. There is more to democracy in Fiji than elections. Even if Bainimarama wins he will need to demonstrate a commitment to the other elements of democracy such as a free media, independent judiciary and active civil society.

What the Lowy Institute does

The Lowy Institute has been providing in-depth analysis on Fiji and Australian policy towards Fiji since 2008. In the lead-up to the Fiji elections Jenny Hayward Jones, Program Director of the Melanesia Program, will provide ongoing analysis of the election campaign and release policy recommendations for the Australian Government on the likely outcomes of the Fiji poll.