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Fiji's election: More to do to restore democracy

Fiji's election: More to do to restore democracy

After eight years of Voreqe Bainimarama's military rule in Fiji, there is much excitement about the prospects for Fiji's return to democracy with elections next week. Seven parties and one independent candidate will contest 50 parliamentary seats. 591,095 Fijians have registered to vote; 120,000 of them will vote for the first time. With limited time and despite some constraints applied by the Fiji Government, the Fiji Elections Office has educated Fiji's voters on a new voting system, trained some 14,000 volunteers to staff polling stations and injected a vigour to the process that significantly diminishes the risk of fraudulent behaviour.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has expressed confidence in the preparations underway for the elections. A Multinational Observer Group co-led by Australia, India, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea and featuring observers from at least ten other countries is already in Fiji monitoring the elections.

It is tempting to see the elections as the culmination of years of international pressure, driven largely by Australia and New Zealand, for Bainimarama to deliver on his promise to restore democracy in Fiji. 

In a new Lowy Institute Policy Brief, I argue that elections are only the start of Fiji's transition back to democracy. Fiji has much more work to do to restore all the elements of a democratic society. And Australia should play a key role in assisting this transition. [fold]

Fiji's democratic institutions have taken a battering since the 2006 coup. Political parties were not permitted to operate as parties until 2014. There was no formal political opposition to Bainimarama's Government. The independence of the judiciary has been compromised. The freedoms of Fiji's media and civil society are constrained.

Elections themselves do not make a democracy. As we have seen in other ostensibly democratic polities, such as in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, elections can be used by dominant leaders to both legitimise and entrench authoritarianism. Developments in Turkey in recent years are one such example. Charismatic Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has proved his talent for winning elections, with his Justice and Development Party claiming victory in six consecutive polls (general and nationwide local elections) and most recently winning Turkey's first ever popular election for president.

But Erdogan has become increasingly authoritarian, restricting civil liberties, cracking down on public protests and imprisoning record numbers of journalists. Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol has argued that Erdogan has created a 'winner-takes-all democracy' where as elected leader, he both defines and dominates the nation to the exclusion of opposing voices.

If Bainimarama's Fiji First party is in a position to form a government either in its own right or in a coalition after the poll next Wednesday and Bainimarama is elected prime minister, there is no guarantee he will be a democratic leader. Indeed, his authoritarian governing style to date, his aversion to criticism and suspicion of media and civil society indicate he is more likely to emulate the leadership example of Erdogan than that of a typical leader of the Westminster style of government prevalent in the Pacific Islands region.

Bainimarama has arguably evolved as a civilian rather than a military leader through the campaign process. If elected, however, he is likely to see victory as a vindication of his leadership approach and agenda for Fiji rather than seize the opportunity to remake himself as the leader of a vibrant parliamentary democracy. After years of ruling by decree and centralising decision-making in his office, Bainimarama and his Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum will struggle to adjust to facing robust debate in parliament in order to pass legislation. The 2013 constitution does little to promote a more independent judiciary. Some constraints on the freedoms of civil society and media prevail.

Without the moderating influence of an effective parliament, where an opposition holds the government to account, an independent judiciary and (in the words of the Australian Foreign Minister) a 'free and unfettered media to hold all the sides of politics to account on behalf of the people', an elected Prime Minister Bainimarama will not be able to consolidate the progress established by the election.

Australia, which has already begun to re-engage with Fiji and has provided significant assistance for the elections, must continue to support Fiji's transition to democracy. Persuading an elected Prime Minister Bainimarama (if indeed he is victorious) of the value of Australian support for democratic institutions will be challenging given his suspicions of Canberra. It will require skilled Australian diplomacy and patience but also real leverage, something Australia has in the attractiveness to Fiji of a reconstituted bilateral defence relationship. 

Australia should consider offering further elements of the assistance package Julie Bishop announced in February. These should include 'no strings attached' new partnerships with the Fijian parliament, support for civil society, media and the rule of law, and an enhanced military relationship. If Australia does not take the lead in assisting democratic institutions and the building blocks of democracy in Fiji, who will?

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