Fiji coup leader gets the democratic approval he wanted

Frank Bainimarama has pulled off the unlikely feat of making the transition from military coup leader in 2006 (above) to Fiji’s democratically elected prime minister in Wednesday’s election. AAP/Mick Tsikas

This was the way it was meant to be, at least in the eyes of Fiji’s self-appointed prime minister and self-styled rear-admiral, Frank Bainimarama. The 2014 election, the country’s first since his 2006 coup, would secure him in office with an overwhelming democratic vote. Bainimarama and his Fiji First party have swept to victory in Wednesday’s elections with the support of more than 60% of voters.

Bainimarama has the mandate he wanted to continue what he calls his “revolution” in Fijian affairs. With final results still to be declared, Fiji First will have a clear majority of the Parliament’s 50 seats when it meets again after a break of almost eight years. On the current vote count, only two other parties have surmounted the 5% hurdle needed for parliamentary representation.

Bainimarama’s 2013 constitution will therefore remain the governing document of Fiji’s politics. Under this constitution, it is “the overall responsibility of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces to ensure at all times the security, defence and well-being of Fiji and all Fijians”. This is a comprehensive provision that gives the military a green light to seize the reins of government again in the future.

For the moment, though, coups are a distant prospect, because the aim of the most recent coup – to put Bainimarama in power – has been reaffirmed by democratic means. In the last eight years he has secured a degree of charismatic legitimacy as the national leader who acted to ensure that a road was fixed here, a bridge built there and a grievance addressed swiftly in this or that village. He now has democratic legitimacy as well.

Why did the people of Fiji vote for Bainimarama?

In the absence of comprehensive polling, the answers can only be speculative.

Fiji is renowned for voting along ethnic lines. In the 2006 election, the vast majority of voters chose parties that reflected their ethnic interests, whether indigenous or Indian. Fiji’s electoral system is now non-racial and depends only on numbers of votes in a system of proportional representation.

In this election, voters’ identification with candidates of their own ethnicity seems to have persisted but become less important. Most voters for the second-biggest party, SODELPA, are likely to have been indigenous Fijians.

Bainimarama’s Fiji First has benefited from the backing of Fijian citizens of Indian descent, who have deserted what used to be their old political home, the Fiji Labour Party. But, crucially in a country where indigenous Fijians are a majority, Bainimarama has won the support of many of them as well, assembling a victorious combination in the process.

Behind Frank Bainimarama’s smiles was an implied threat of another coup if he didn’t win. Facebook/US embassy, Suva

The candidacy of Bainimarama, who frequently claimed he would win all 50 seats in parliament, came with an implied threat. Not for nothing did soldiers march through the streets of Suva shortly before the election. In voting for Bainimarama, people were voting for stability.

If Fijians had voted against him, they would have been courting another military coup, with all the disruption and economic damage that comes with it. Just as the economy was beginning to recover from the last coup, it would have been thrown into turmoil again.

The election campaign was far from free and fair. After years of media suppression, political parties other than Bainimarama’s Fiji First operated in an atmosphere in which opposition to the government remained suspect. The opposition parties themselves had been banned for years. They were permitted to form again only after clearing onerous regulatory hurdles.

And the vote count itself might be tainted. The day after the vote, the five opposition parties said they would not accept the election result. They claimed the “evidence points to a co-ordinated and systematic effort to defraud the citizens of Fiji of a free and fair election”. Given the government’s command of the situation, however, their complaints are likely to lead nowhere.

Fiji’s generous 2014 budget, it has to be remembered, gave people positive reasons for voting for Fiji First. The budget boosted health and social services, increased the pay of soldiers, police and public servants (a considerable proportion of the nation’s paid workforce) and lifted one of the greatest burdens on Fiji’s families by abolishing school fees and making school education free.

Bainimarama might also have benefited from the national rejoicing that accompanied the release, a couple of days before the election, of 45 Fijian peacekeepers held captive by the al-Nusra Front in Syria. The peacekeepers were returned to the Golan Heights after Qatar allegedly paid their ransoms. The government declared Tuesday, the day before the election, a National Day of Thanksgiving.

Fiji and the international community

Democratic legitimacy matters for Fiji, which was treated as a pariah state by sections of the international community until 2012, when Bainimarama lifted a three-year state of emergency and began moves towards holding these elections. Until then Australia and New Zealand isolated Fiji diplomatically, cut military ties and imposed travel bans on Fiji citizens associated with the coup regime. Fiji was suspended from the Commonwealth and the Pacific Islands Forum, while the European Union reduced aid, making its resumption in full conditional on a return to democracy.

Bainimarama responded with his own defiant foreign policy. He adopted a “Look North” approach and opened diplomatic missions in Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and even North Korea. Fiji joined the G77 plus China, a major grouping of developing nations, and at the United Nations it steered an independent diplomatic course together with other small island developing states.

At home in the Pacific, Bainimarama created something called the Pacific Islands Development Forum, a regional organisation that pointedly excludes Australia and New Zealand. He became chair of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, a sub-regional organisation whose membership is restricted to Melanesian countries.

Democracy is more than an election. Fiji is not democratic yet and Bainimarama’s continued dominance will mean that full democracy remains out of reach.

But Australia will be pleased with this result. Former Liberal minister Peter Reith, co-leader of the Multinational Observer Group, says the outcome will broadly represent the will of Fijian voters. Foreign minister Julie Bishop says Australia looks forward to working with the new Fiji government.

For the Abbott government, Fiji is now democratic enough to welcome back into the regional and international community.