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Saturday 19 Aug 2017 | 08:04 | SYDNEY
Saturday 19 Aug 2017 | 08:04 | SYDNEY

Fiji: The long road down

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4 March 2009 13:32

March 2009 was once promised as the month that the interim Government of Fiji would hold elections and restore democracy to the country. There is still no election date in sight in Fiji and the interim Government’s own reform agenda is looking shaky. 

I spent the week of 16 February in Fiji, conducting some research on the political situation and the state of the economy. The sense of frustration, exhaustion and disenchantment with politics I encountered in Suva, combined with the obvious economic malaise in both the capital and in the business-focused western towns of Nadi and Lautoka, did not give me much cause for optimism about the future of Fiji. Three recent significant events, which coincidentally occurred in the week I was in Fiji, have revealed some stresses and strains within the interim Government, which indicate Fiji may be approaching a crossroads.

Firstly, in an extended interview with Radio Australia broadcast on 18 February, interim Prime Minister Commodore Bainimarama refused to propose a timeframe for elections but promised to support the President’s political dialogue process, which will be facilitated by the Commonwealth Secretariat and United Nations. Many in Fiji regard this dialogue as the last hope for a return to democracy, so the Commodore’s public commitment to it takes on greater importance at this time.   

Secondly, Fiji Television footage screened on 17 February showed Police Commissioner Teleni threatening to sack Indo-Fijian officers if they spoke out against his Christian crusade against crime. The majority of Indo-Fijians are Hindu or Muslim. Bainimarama endorsed Teleni’s approach, apparently contradicting his earlier comments to Radio Australia that the coup had resolved much of Fiji’s racial tensions and that 'everyone is treated the same here.'

Support for the interim Government is greater among Indo-Fijians than among indigenous Fijians (64 per cent of Indo-Fijians interviewed in a December 2008 Fiji Times-Tebutt poll approved of Bainimarama’s performance, as opposed to only 35 per cent of indigenous Fijians). If the outrage expressed by many prominent Fijians at Commissioner Teleni’s behaviour is a measure of wider discontent, this incident may prove a turning point in the Fiji public’s relationship with the interim Government.

Thirdly, Savenaca Narube, the highly regarded Governor of the Reserve Bank of Fiji, gave an interview reported in the Fiji Times on 19 February in which he expressed grave concerns for the state of Fiji’s economy. The interim Government has been talking up the economy, despite the fact that Fiji’s declining foreign reserves (official reserves at the end of February were approximately FJ$672.2 million – sufficient to cover only 2.7 months of goods imports) have revealed serious problems in the Fiji economy, caused by falling tourist arrivals, declining remittances, a drop in demand for Fiji exports and reduced investor confidence. 

Ratings agency Standard and Poors has just revised its outlook on Fiji’s long-term credit rating downwards. 

This very serious news delivered by the Governor was not dissimilar to hard messages being delivered by governments the world over since the onset of the global financial crisis. That the news was delivered by the Reserve Bank rather than by Commodore Bainimarama, also the Minister for Finance and National Planning, may be an indication that the interim Government is either in denial of or struggling to deal with the creeping economic crisis.

Whether these three events will lead Fijians to put more pressure on the interim Government to improve its performance or give way to an elected government remains to be seen. It may be the Fijian way to wait patiently for the political situation to improve. But with Fiji hit hard by the global financial crisis and devastating floods, the country is facing much more significant challenges in 2009 than at any time since the 2006 coup. Waiting patiently may prove costly.

Photo by Flickr user conceptDawg, used under a Creative Commons license.

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