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Fresh Fiji elections or militarist fatalism?

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30 April 2008 09:15

Guest blogger: Jon Fraenkel, Research Fellow in the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Program at the ANU, responds to Satish Chand and Sanjay Ramesh on our Fiji debate.

The chorus of criticism against speedy elections as a way out of the impasse generated by Fiji’s December 2006 coup is revealing. Of course, it is true that the two year Pacific Islands Forum-European Union timetable for fresh elections set in early 2007 reflected a fairly standard response, advocated by the Commonwealth — one suspects almost regardless of the political situation in post-coup circumstances. That response makes greater sense in situations where there are considerable uncertainties about the outcome of elections. However, in Fiji, elections had been held only eight months before the coup in May 2006. As Satish Chand says, there is a high probability that the next election scheduled for March 2009 produces a similarly polarized outcome to those pre-coup polls. Perhaps, as Sanjay Ramesh anticipates, ‘with an even more violent outcome’. This argument has a familiar ring amongst some sections of the community in Fiji, but it is one that could be used to justify acquiescence under military regimes anywhere in the world.

There were similar uncertainties after the May 2000 coup and particularly around March 2001 when Fiji’s Court of Appeal ruled the post-coup interim government to be illegal — although then the fear was of an ethnic Fijian populist uprising. Then the critics of holding fresh elections preferred instead that the pre-coup parliament be reconvened, perhaps with a different Prime Minister or under a ‘Government of National Unity’.

This time around, the critics of elections for the most part offer no such practical alternative. Many of the more vehement anti-electionists say polls should not be held until the constitution is changed, the electoral system overhauled and a ‘Peoples’ Charter’ popularly endorsed by referendum. These critics range from die-hard coup supporters (such as Fiji Labour Party President Jokapeci Koroi), to the one-time almost pedantic upholders of the rule of law (such as the Citizens Constitutional Forum), to middle-ground opponents of the coup (such as Satish Chand and Sanjay Ramesh). What they all have in common is that they offer no clear alternative to perpetual military intervention in Fiji’s political life.

Imagine what might have happened if this type of response had gained widespread support back in the wake of Fiji’s previous military coup in 1987. Would it then have been a practical and laudable response to reject efforts to restore constitutional government or hold fresh elections because that would threaten to bring yet another military coup? Would it have been better to reject the mid-1987 Deuba accord, because this threatened to unleash a military clampdown, as indeed occurred in September 1987, when the military reasserted its authority and Fiji departed from the Commonwealth? Would it have been better thereafter to have embraced the 1990 constitution, and sought to reshape this into a more moderate and acceptable framework?*

Anyone urging such a course of action, or inaction, back in 1987-90 would have been widely condemned for spinelessly accommodating a ruthless and racist military regime. Anyone who backed the post-2000 coup Ravuvu-led Constitutional Review Commission was condemned as pandering to ethno-nationalist sentiment, whereas those who join the illegal interim government’s ‘National Council for Building a Better Fiji’ are widely welcomed as enlightened bearers of a reform-oriented agenda. Why the difference in response? Why are the critics of elections this time around so unenthusiastic about the prospects of returning to the polls?

The call for fresh elections is a sensible response to the current impasse in Fiji. No-one suggests that elections — or even mandatory power-sharing of the type Fiji tried before this was demolished at the hands of the military — will resolve Fiji’s political or economic troubles, or provide some miraculous antidote to the cycle of coups. That will be the tough task of post-election governments for generations to come.

International pressure for elections is sensible because it reflects domestic pressures that cannot presently be articulated; the majority of people in Fiji also want an elected government, but military intimidation and armed force prevents that aspiration from being realised. It is also a sensible response because the military, and the interim government, claim to be acting in the interests of the people, and that only ballot-rigging or the racially-engineered electoral system prevented their faction from gaining electoral endorsement. Let us put that to the test, and maximise the pressures towards getting the military out of Fiji’s political life (as was successfully accomplished in the 1990s). The real danger is not fresh elections, but that the Pacific Islands Forum succumbs to the pressure to accept all manner of obstacles erected by the illegal interim regime on the so-called ‘roadmap’ for elections. As a Fiji High Court judge said after resigning for coup-related reasons earlier this year, ‘acquiescence is the friend of illegality’.

* The post-coup 1990 constitution reserved the position of President and Prime Minister for ethnic Fijians and gave 37 seats to the ethnic Fijians and 27 to Fiji Indians, despite near equality in their shares of the total population.  

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