Reengaging Fiji: The Right Policy at the Right Time
February 27, 2014
A group of foreign ministers from the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) member states visited Suva, Fiji, on February 14–15 to study that country’s progress toward democracy. The trip’s outcomes show that pragmatism has become the flavor of Pacific affairs. The group praised Fiji for its significant progress toward holding democratic elections in September. Even Australia and New Zealand, two of the military regime’s harshest critics, sent their foreign ministers to meet regime leader Commodore Voreqe “Frank” Bainimarama and broker a plan to normalize relations.
The rapprochement that Australia, New Zealand, and the other PIF members are seeking is a smart response for all parties, including Fiji, to what has become an intractable dispute.
The road to détente has been long and damaging for all involved. On December 5, 2006, Bainimarama led a military coup and seized control of the Fijian government as an “interim prime minister.” He began to consolidate power soon after. Following a Supreme Court decision in April 2009 that declared the coup unconstitutional, Bainimarama announced a road map to democracy, which included a commitment to create a new constitution in 2013 and hold elections in 2014. In response to this clear procrastination on a return to democracy, both the PIF and the Commonwealth, at the behest of Canberra and Wellington, suspended Fiji. Several regional players, including Australia, imposed travel sanctions on the coup instigators.
This international response failed to achieve its goal of forcing an immediate return to democracy in Fiji. The major reason that this policy of isolation failed was that the instigators miscalculated Fiji’s economic importance to its neighbors. As it became clear that Bainimarama would not give up power before his government’s self-appointed deadlines, the policy’s cohesion slowly dissipated, with other Pacific Islands deciding they could not afford to isolate Fiji, a vital transshipment route and economic hub.
Bainimarama has now reframed the narrative as one of Australia and New Zealand bullying their smaller neighbors. Fiji has portrayed itself as standing against this by strengthening multilateral organizations that exclude Australia and New Zealand, especially the Melanesian Spearhead Group and the newly created Pacific Islands Development Forum. Fiji also sought out new international partners, such as China, to reduce its historical reliance on Australian aid. From the perspectives of Australia and New Zealand, the ongoing tensions with Fiji clearly have weakened their influence as regional leaders.
Nevertheless, Canberra and Wellington have succeeded in delegitimizing Fiji’s military regime in the eyes of the international community. The military’s efforts to consolidate power, including its heavy-handedness in writing the constitution and setting the stage for the upcoming elections, has reinforced these perceptions of illegitimacy and spurred concerns about Fiji’s future stability and business climate. The pressure applied by the Australia- and New Zealand-led coalition has not sped up Bainimarama’s timeline for a return to democracy, but it likely has forced the regime to stick to it, if imperfectly, to rebuild its international image.
So with both sides losing ground in this protracted disagreement, why did normalization take so long? First, the Bainimarama regime presented little opportunity for normalization until now. Indeed, the ongoing voter registration process may be the Bainimarama government’s first undeniable step toward democracy since the 2006 coup. More than 600,000 voters—over two-thirds of the total population—will likely be registered to participate in the upcoming elections. Before, the authorities had at least partially broken every major promise along Bainimarama’s road map.
A particularly stark example was the fate of the original draft constitution, created by an independent commission led by renowned international expert Yash Ghai. Fijian police burned all hard copies of the draft in January 2013 and authorities replaced it two months later with one drafted by the Bainimarama government. This new constitution offers only limited personal freedoms and protects coup instigators from prosecution. Meanwhile, opposition groups have been disbanded and harassed in a continuation of the status quo.
A second reason that normalization is only now taking place is the change of government in Australia following that country’s September 2013 general elections. The National-Liberal Coalition government can more easily break with the previous Labor government’s hardline policies and rhetoric toward Fiji without Australia further losing face in the region.
Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop received a warm welcome from Bainimarama on February 15 and has set a rapid normalization agenda that includes the loosening of travel sanctions and the reestablishment of military ties via joint exercises and potential exchanges of military attachés. Canberra has also expressed encouragement for Fiji’s “Look North Policy,” which focuses on relations with Asia in general and China in particular, while expressing hope that Fiji will approach Australia as a “partner of choice.”
Normalization does not come without conditions for Bainimarama, who is set to run for office in the upcoming elections. He must fulfill a promise to step down as military commander on February 28, and he must ensure that free elections take place before September 30. At this point, Bainimarama is unlikely to back away from this timetable, since normalization will bring at least some international legitimacy to him as a potential elected leader and to the military for following through with a return to democracy.
The United States should welcome these pragmatic regional efforts to bring Fiji back into the fold. If the cold shoulder treatment only hardened the regime’s resolve to reject outside influence, then welcoming the country back into international institutions such as the PIF should increase Fiji’s willingness to work with regional partners.
However, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States must be careful not to forget the principles they have so strongly championed by isolating Fiji: human rights and democratic values for the Fijian people. It is unclear how fair the upcoming elections will actually be, considering the restrictions on political party formation and the press, as well as the fact that Bainimarama himself is running for prime minister. At a minimum, the regional powers must keep up pressure on the military regime so as to guarantee that international election observers and logistical assistance are allowed to ensure all Fijians have an opportunity to cast ballots on election day.
(This Commentary originally appeared in the February 27, 2014 issue of Pacific Partners Outlook.)
Elke Larsen is program coordinator and research assistant with the Pacific Partners Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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