In what may be the clearest sign yet that Fiji Prime Minister Commodore Frank Bainimarama (pictured) intends to make good on his promise to hold elections in 2014, he has announced that he will resign as head of the military on 28 February and stand for election.
Bainimarama has promised that his political party, the details of which he will announce on 1 March, will deliver. He has that the party he forms will be standing on the record of delivering basic services.
While Fiji's new Electoral Act has yet to be enacted, four other parties have registered to participate in the elections, which are expected to take place in September. Many commentators believe Bainimarama is confident of electoral victory and hence made this most recent announcement. He told soldiers during a parade on Monday that it was important people chose their government representatives sensibly, and said voters should be wary of politicians who had their own agendas, implying that voting for him would be a wise choice.
In other countries that use a single national constituency and/or open list proportional representation voting system, which Fiji's new constitution endorsed, it is difficult for one party to win an absolute majority and coalition governments are the norm. Bainimarama has spent the last seven years governing on his own terms. Whether he has the negotiating and coalition-forming skills of an Angela Merkel or a Benjamin Netanyahu is yet to be seen.
Bainimarama might take heart from this end of year survey by Gallup International. The results showed that 70% of Fijians thought 2014 will be better than 2013, 62% thought this year will be a year of economic prosperity and 88% personally felt happy about their lives. The survey was a universal one and did not test what Fijians thought about their prime minister but Bainimarama would be pleased that Fijians expressed so much confidence about their country in 2014 and would hope to convert this into votes for him and his party. By comparison, the same survey indicated that only 39% of Australians thought 2014 would be better than 2013; just 17% believed this year would be one of economic prosperity, while 32% predicted economic difficulty and 43% said it would be the same as 2013; and only 53% personally felt happy about their lives.
If Bainimarama follows through on his intentions, it creates a slight opening for Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to pursue her promised change of course to Australia's Fiji policy. In opposition, Bishop said a Coalition government would prioritise the normalisation of relations with Fiji. As Minister she has been more circumspect in public about any major changes to Australia's Fiji policy. But Bishop did meet with Fiji Foreign Minister Kubuabola, and has conferred with New Zealand Foreign Minister McCully on the path ahead. She has signaled that confirmation of an election date would be significant in her thinking about future shifts in policy.
Interestingly, Bainimarama's official Twitter account announced yesterday that the Australian High Commission would be inviting him to attend Australia Day celebrations. His advisers clearly believe this to be something of a breakthrough, signaling that improving relations with Australia may be more important to Bainimarama than he has previously indicated.
It will be tempting for Canberra to proceed cautiously where Bainimarama is concerned and prior experience shows that such caution is warranted. But waiting until after the election to change course in Fiji policy risks a continuation of the high level bilateral impasse. Bainimarama, if he is to win government, may choose to punish Australia for its isolation of him since 2006. This could in turn create difficulties in Australia's relations with the region as an elected Prime Minister Bainimarama will seek to attract the early support of Pacific Island countries.
Early normalisation of relations is unlikely, but Bainimarama's decision to stand down allows Bishop to consider initiating a conversation with him about his plans for the election. Once Bainimarama is officially a candidate, the Foreign Minister could speak to all the leading candidates (even if only by telephone) about Australia's commitment to provide support for elections. While this work would normally best be done by diplomats, Australia needs to widen its political conversation with Fiji now if the Abbott Government intends to expand relations after the elections.