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The Fiji dilemma (part 4)

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15 June 2011 15:06

Here are the previous columns in this Fiji series.

The bluster coming from the Bainimarama regime is the sign of a deeply-worried and fraying New Order — Jenny Hayward-Jones can take comfort and kudos that she is hitting the mark when Fiji both condemns and cites her.

The Supremo's anger is directed inward as well outward. The defection by Colonel Mara strikes at the Supremo's legitimacy, his self-image and his narrative about returning to democracy. Mara is tainted by his role in the regime but that does not necessarily undermine his evidence of the nature of the Order. Consider Mara's statement that Bainimarama personally administered beatings to opponents. The thuggish nature of the regime reflects the personality of its leader.

Australian policy will be shaped by the unfortunate reality that the Supremo's ad hoc New Order is entering its second decade. Any return to some form of democracy will be done on the Supremo's terms. Frank Bainimarama's one clear achievement has been to establish beyond doubt the military's unique prerogatives. The struggle with Mara is for the soul of the military as well as the control of Fiji.
 
That is why outsiders approaching Fiji need to focus on pushing back the boundaries of the military's power as a goal of equal importance to the long-standing demand for an election. When elections eventually arrive, all indications from the Supremo are that they will be used to entrench the central elements of Fiji's New Order. Indeed, drawing on the Suharto model, the Supremo might be more attracted to the presidential rather than the Westminster model for the formal expression of his Order.

As the Supremo moves to impose a new constitution and political structure, the aim of outsiders must be to widen Fiji's freedoms before the promised 2014 election. Engaging the Supremo must be all about linkages – rewards for actual steps, not mere promises. The previous column listed some of the steps needed from the regime before 2014: lift the state of emergency, end military censorship, hold municipal elections, and allow normal activity by political parties.

The carrots that can be tied to those steps include:

  • Narrow and relax travel restrictions Australia and New Zealand imposed on regime (for example, allow travel for diplomatic contacts, medical treatment or sporting events such as the Rugby World Cup).
  • Include Fiji in PACER Plus trade negotiations.
  • Graduated re-entry to the Pacific Islands Forum and the Commonwealth: senior officials, then the foreign minister and finally Fiji's leader, after an election.
  • EU to resume EU negotiations on aid to Fiji's sugar industry (worth a lot to Fiji's economy).
  • Aid for elections and for the resumption of normal political activity.
  • Resumption of military-to-military contacts.

Some of these steps should happen before an election. Others, such as resuming military contacts, would come after. The EU point illustrates the need for an equal effort to talk to other interested outsiders as to the regime. The Forum and the Commonwealth can be useful agents in this effort by Australia and New Zealand. As Jenny Hayward-Jones argued in her Lowy Policy Brief:

The Australian government should build and lead a new coalition with traditional and non-traditional partners which works with Fiji to develop a package of assistance for electoral and constitutional reform. To support this effort, Australia should also offer a range of confidence-building measures to prepare the ground for Australia to assist Fiji’s transition to democracy.

The coalition would have quite a membership: Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands Forum, the European Union, the US, Japan, the Commonwealth, the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank. China would not want to be included in such a grouping, but on some practical points it might be prepared to talk, if not join. And China's views on the future of the Pacific Islands are now a matter of continuing import.

As in much else, the chance of movement will depend on the Supremo's mood. Bainimarama has been better at giving orders than at negotiating or listening to others. The offer of carrots will be trumpeted as a triumph for the regime. Negotiating with the Supremo will be difficult because he is not a man who always delivers on his promises. Yet, as Richard Herr noted last year, in arguing for a change in Australia's stance, Fiji's return to some form of democracy depends on the commitment and personality of this one man:

There is no guarantee that Fiji will respond in a way that will completely satisfy the Australian Government or critics of the Bainimarama Government. The attitude of the Government of Fiji has hardened in the face of the external pressure applied to it while consolidating its control internally. Canberra has been loath to reward what it sees as misplaced intransigence. But waiting for Suva to make the first gesture has been unproductive. The result has been an ongoing impasse with no suggestion that success is imminent.

With the regime looking shaky, the chance for engagement is open. Bainimarama needs to make concessions to his own people as much as to the outside world. A series of linked steps allow the Supremo to claim victory over his critics even as he lets go of control.

Photo by Flickr user a-birdie

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