Published daily by the Lowy Institute

In Fiji, Bainimarama is back, stronger than ever

In Fiji, Bainimarama is back, stronger than ever

The Fiji elections have delivered a crushing victory for Rear Admiral (Retd) Bainimarama, author of the 2006 coup.

The victory was crushing not only for FijiFirst, Bainimarama's party, but also for him personally. FijiFirst received 293,714 out of 496,364 votes cast, giving the party 59.20% of the vote, a figure which will only rise as the parties and independents that failed to cross the 5% threshold for parliament are eliminated.

Bainimarama addressing the 64th session of the UN General Assembly, 2009 (Flickr/United Nations Photo).

With Bainimarama now sworn in as prime minister, it's unlikely that a challenge to the election result by a coalition of political parties is going to significantly change the outcome. This means FijiFirst will be governing Fiji for the next four years without the need for a coalition partner. 

It has been apparent for some time that FijiFirst was likely to emerge from the election as the strongest party. But critics of the Bainimarama regime had hoped that the proportional representation elements of the electoral system would mean that FijiFirst would be unable to govern without the backing of another party. Given that every other party in the election campaigned on platforms seeking to undo or alter significant parts of the military regime's policies, this would have forced at least some course changes for Fiji. But given that his party is set to get in excess of 30 of the 50 seats in the new parliament, Bainimarama does not need to worry unduly about the influence of opposition parties.

Bainimarama also does not need to be terribly concerned about dissent in his own ranks. [fold]

Normally, an open-list electoral system such as Fiji's gives MPs a powerful individual mandate, based on the fact that their constituents voted for them personally. This can give members the confidence to go against the party line if they feel sufficient popular support. Melanesia has a long history of intra-party volatility that has brought down more than a few governments in the region.

But Bainimarama's candidates, who have likely been hand-picked, owe their seats to the popularity of their leader. As a party, FijiFirst achieved a majority. But the individual members of FijiFirst actually got far fewer votes than candidates from other political parties, particularly the social-democratic SODELPA. FijiFirst's victory was largely due to the personal vote for Bainimarama. He received a stunning 202,458 votes, more than two-thirds of his party's total. Under Fiji's voting system, these votes flowed on, to the benefit of other party canidates. So, far from having their own individual power bases, FijiFirst MPs stand in the shadow of their leader and owe their seats to him. 

This means there are unlikely to be many changes in the development of Fiji government policy going forward. And as Jenny Hayward-Jones has pointed out, there are significant issues facing Fijian democracy and civil liberties. Addressing these issues is likely to become much harder now that Bainimarama can draw on a strong mandate from the polls, a mandate that he has already interpreted as popular support for his 'vision'.

While there is certainly going to be parliamentary debate, it may be too much to expect it to alter key issues, especially since one of those issues is media freedoms. The restrictions on the press imposed by the Media Industry Development Agency and the media decrees have served Bainimarama well, and he is not going to change them readily.

Bainimarama's dominant position in Fijian domestic politics makes it even more imperative for Australia and other regional players to engage constructively but critically with the new Fijian Government. The international response to Fiji's return to democracy needs to be more than just a rubber stamp. Opposition parties, civil society and the Fijian media will need outside assistance and pressure to develop and diversify to the level required by a healthy democracy.

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