Paradise Lost: Fiji’s Failing Democratic Transition
April 11, 2013
Fiji’s prime minister, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, released a draft constitution on March 21, ostensibly to guide his country back to democracy. At the same time, he canceled plans for a constituent assembly to debate the draft, instead welcoming input from citizens at large although without promising to incorporate their suggestions.
Fiji’s current government came to power in a 2006 military coup led by Bainimarama. Following an international outcry, he promised in 2009 to hold elections and return Fiji to democracy by 2014. Finalizing a constitution is a crucial step down this road, but many Fijians and outside observers question how democratic the planned return to democracy next year will be.
The draft constitution, as well as the process of drafting it, allows Bainimarama to hold on to unprecedented power and single-handedly shape Fiji’s future. The draft, created primarily by lawyers appointed by the military regime, was released without any civilian input. The mechanisms for outside feedback are extremely limited.
Citizens can comment on the draft until April 26—the original April 5 deadline proved too short to gather much input—either by e-mail, writing to the Solicitor General’s Office, texting, or commenting on the Ministry of Information’s Facebook page. This may seem like genuine openness by the government. In reality, the process prevents consolidated political and civil society voices from contesting the government’s overwhelming role in the debate.
Given government censorship and punishment of any reporting deemed harmful to national interests, unbiased, informed discussion is not readily available to the general public in Fiji. Only the “best” submissions will be incorporated into the final draft, according to Bainimarama, and it remains unclear who will make that determination or when the constitution will come into effect.
The current draft is not the first attempt at a constitution. Last year, a civilian-led commission headed by legal expert Yash Ghai, of Kenya, drafted a constitution. The commission was appointed by the Fijian government and funded by Australia and New Zealand. The civilian draft would have removed the military from office over a six-month period and was praised for its protections of rights and freedoms. When Ghai leaked a copy of the draft constitution to the press in December 2012, Bainimarama scrapped the commission and fired him. In an Orwellian gesture, the government collected all hard copies of the document and burned them in front of Ghai.
Ghai’s commission had received substantial praise from abroad, with many arguing that Bainimarama truly wanted to transition Fiji to a free and fair democracy. As the constitutional process has gone downhill, foreign governments that were highly critical of the 2006 coup have voiced only muted concern. For example, Australian prime minister Julia Gillard said on April 4 that Bainimarama must hold free and fair elections in 2014, but did not directly criticize his tactics. With growing funding from China, Fiji is increasingly less reliant on Australia and New Zealand, and less susceptible to pressure from them.
Several prominent figures in Fiji harshly criticized the new draft constitution last week. Political activist Sharon Bhagwan Rolls, who manages the women’s organization Femlink Pacific, lamented that references to women’s rights in the civilian draft were taken out. She said on April 2 that the draft renders women, who already face heavy discrimination in the Pacific, “invisible.” Three hundred members of the United Front for a Democratic Fiji, a group headed by former political party leaders, met April 3 and released a statement rejecting the government’s draft and demanded that the civilian commission’s document be reinstated.
The current draft allows Bainimarama to remain in power until election day in September 2014 and is more accommodating of the military’s role in Fiji. It offers a pardon for anyone involved in a coup—Fiji has had four in 25 years—and constitutional scholars have said the draft gives the elected prime minister extraordinary lawmaking powers. It names the prime minister head of the armed services and gives the government broad powers to override much of Fiji’s Bill of Rights in the interests of national security.
Bainimarama is consolidating his position in other ways as well. A decree on political parties passed earlier this year resulted in a reduction of the number of parties from 17 to 3 as of February 19. The decree requires that political parties have at least 5,000 members and pay a registration fee of some $2,800. The fee must come from contributions from the party members; parties can no longer receive donations from businesses, nongovernmental organizations, or other groups. Journalists, editors, and media organizations can be jailed or fined if they refer to an unauthorized organization as a political party.
When introducing the new draft constitution, Bainimarama said that he had canceled the planned constituent assembly because a “lack of commitment of political parties to register” had not provided “a conducive climate.” Forming a new assembly and processing its recommendations before a previously announced September deadline would be a tall order, so the government stepped in. In other words, Bainimarama imposed requirements on political and civil society that ensured they would fall short and that left the drafting of the constitution entirely in the government’s hands.
Those expecting Fiji to transition from a coup-spawned military dictatorship to a full-fledged democracy can expect to be disappointed. Bainimarama is likely to hold onto power, announcing the day after the draft constitution’s release that he will run in the 2014 elections. His current ability to rule by decree, along with intimidation of media and opposition groups, ensures him a strong edge on any other candidates that emerge in the coming months.
The time has come for foreign leaders, especially in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, to start admitting that Fiji’s transition to democracy is faltering. Their leverage over the country is smaller than it once was, but it is not inconsiderable. Bainimarama should be told clearly that the current draft constitution and the process that birthed it do not meet the standards of the international community. The message should be that normalization of relations will not occur if Fiji’s government continues its current course. Australia, New Zealand, and the United States should use every opportunity to rally Fiji’s neighbors around that position, especially in the run-up to this September’s Pacific Islands Forum.
(This Commentary originally appeared in the April 2013 issue of Pacific Partners Outlook.)
Elke Larsen is research assistant with the Pacific Partners Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and Kathleen Rustici is research associate with the Pacific Partners Initiative.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.