Fiji’s new government: a less repressive trajectory?
After 16 years, Fiji has a new prime minister, Sitiveni Rabuka, following the December 2022 election. But it’s a sign of the shaky foundations of democracy that both Rabuka and the leader he replaced, Frank Bainimarama, have previously led coups to oust democratically elected governments. Ethnic divisions have provided the pretext for coups, and may be exploited again to unsettle a potentially fragile governing coalition. Civil society and the media will hope the new government invests in deepening democracy by reversing the previous government’s hostility towards dissent and enabling the freedoms to speak out and mobilise.
It’s out with the old in Fiji – but whether it’s in with the new remains to be seen. After 16 years, Frank Bainimarama no longer leads the Pacific Island nation. On 24 December 2022 he was replaced as prime minister by Sitiveni Rabuka, following a general election that produced an inconclusive outcome. But the fact that one former coup leader has replaced another offers a sign that democracy may remain a fragile institution.
A history of coups
Following a campaign in which issues such as the high cost of living, pandemic response and creeping authoritarianism featured prominently, Bainimarama’s FijiFirst party held onto first place. But with 26 of 55 seats, it fell short of a majority. In second place was a new party, the People’s Alliance, led by an old head, Rabuka. He founded the party in 2021, shortly after losing leadership of the Social Democratic Liberal Party (Sodelpa) and went on to win 21 seats. Its ally, the National Federation Party (NFP), took five. This left Sodelpa, the only other party to clear the five-per-cent vote threshold, on three seats, playing the kingmaker role: both major parties needed its support to form a government.
FijiFirst refused to concede defeat, while Sodelpa seemed split: for some, there was continuing resentment over Rabuka’s defection, which cost it much support, while others wanted above all to end Bainimarama’s long rule. By all accounts Sodelpa’s final decision to join forces with Rabuka was a narrow one.
As talks between parties went on, Bainimarama was accused of ramping up the pressure by deploying the military. Bainimarama said this was in response to reports of increasing ethnic tensions, but his opponents questioned it. Some people responded by sharing pictures of calm street scenes to counter this narrative. The concern was that Bainimarama might be talking up conflict to enable a military intervention.
History gave cause to worry. Fiji has had four coups since independence in 1970: two in 1987, led by Rabuka, and then two in 2000 and 2006, led by Bainimarama. Ethnic strife was the pretext every time.
Fiji’s population is broadly divided into two groups. Indigenous Fijians, the population group that both Bainimarama and Rabuka come from, made up around 58 per cent of the population at the last census. People generally described as Indo-Fijians – the term can be contentious – constitute around 38 per cent of the population and are mostly descendants of indentured labourers brought to work on sugar plantations during British colonial rule. At one point, before the 1987 coup, Indo-Fijians were in the majority, but many emigrated in response to growing discrimination and political marginalisation.
The 1987 and 2000 coups came after parties largely representing Indo-Fijians made electoral progress, gaining a role in government. In 2000, Mahendra Chaudhry, the first and so far only Indo-Fijian prime minister, was ousted after only a year in power; Bainimarama’s coup came in reaction to an attempted coup by hardline Indigenous nationalists. Bainimarama’s second coup, in 2006, was, he claimed, in defence of multiculturalism, as the government planned changes to increase Indigenous Fijian privilege.
Fiji’s next election was held in 2014, under a constitution introduced in 2013 that eliminated the previous ethnically-based voting system. It resulted in a landslide win for Bainimarama, who stayed in power with a reduced majority at the next vote in 2018.
In recent years major parties have sought to appeal to both main population groups, but the new government straddles the divide in an unprecedented way: the NFP is historically a largely Indo-Fijian party, while Sodelpa’s campaign emphasised Indigenous issues, calling for increased funding for Indigenous affairs and the restoration of the Great Council of Chiefs, a political body abolished by Bainimarama. Most Indo-Fijians identify as Hindus, but Sodelpa’s new deputy prime minister, Viliame Gavoka, is a religious Christian conservative who likes to speak of Fiji’s Christian identity.
Disagreements can be expected in a coalition government apparently brought together principally by what it opposes, particularly given Sodelpa’s lingering distrust of Rabuka. FijiFirst, unaccustomed to life as an opposition party, may well try to exploit divisions, including by stoking ethnic grievances, as it evidently tried to do during the campaign and in its aftermath.
Fiji’s democracy faces a key test: that of undergoing a change of government that doesn’t result in a coup. Concerningly, Bainimarama has pointed to a provision in the 2013 constitution that enables military intervention if certain conditions are met.
Declining civic freedoms
During his long time in power, Bainimarama developed an increasing intolerance of dissent. People who criticised his government were subjected to harassment and arrest. When civil society activists suggested it might be better for a caretaker government to take over ahead of the election, a normal practice in many countries, Bainimarama was quick to accuse them of being opposition supporters.
The smallest criticism of authority could provoke harsh rebuke. In December 2022, lawyer Richard Naidu was found guilty of contempt of court for pointing out a spelling mistake in a legal document on social media. Perhaps not coincidentally, he also backed the opposition. In 2021, Australian academic Pal Ahluwalia was deported, having been suspended from his leading role at the University of the South Pacific after highlighting alleged corruption by the previous management. That same year, Jone Hawae, a doctor who criticised the government’s handling of the pandemic, was detained and questioned by the police.
Being a member of parliament offered no guarantee of safety. Rabuka was questioned by the police for alleging anomalies in counting the 2022 vote. In July 2021, nine opposition politicians, including the leaders of the NFP and Sodelpa, were arrested and questioned after expressing their concerns about proposed amendments to the land law, which they said would weaken the protection of Indigenous landholders’ rights. They were accused of inciting unrest. In 2020, NFP and Sodelpa offices were raided by police following social media posts criticising the government.
A former coup leader should show he’s put his past behind him by committing to open up civic space and engage positively with civil society.
Fiji is consistently ranked as the worst Pacific Island country when it comes to press freedom. The Media Industry Development Authority is a highly interventionist regulator that applies high fines to outlets that infringe its draconian rules, fostering a climate of self-censorship. Sedition laws with extensive jail sentences have a similar effect. Media access was severely restricted when China’s foreign minister Wang Yi visited Fiji last June.
The government uses the Public Order Act to restrict protests, including by opposition parties. The Fiji Trade Union Congress has in recent years been denied permission to march numerous times, and its leader Felix Anthony has been charged with public order offences. Police have often used excessive force in responding to protests and enjoyed impunity for this.
Against this backdrop, a true test of whether change has come will be whether essential freedoms – including the ability to speak out and express dissent – are better respected by Rabuka’s government than under Bainimarama.
What happens in Fiji matters for the region, since Fiji is a major economic and transport hub among Pacific Island nations, home to key regional institutions and the sole Pacific Island country included in the USA’s Indo-Pacific Framework for Prosperity, an economic cooperation plan.
There’s renewed outside interest in Oceania, sparked by China’s recent failed attempt to agree a region-wide economic and security deal. In response, Australia and the USA have moved to reverse long-running attitudes of neglect. Both sides will be watching to see if Fiji’s relations with China, which broadly warmed under Bainimarama, change; Rabuka has signalled they might.
But beyond these broader considerations, Fiji’s new government has a chance to set a good example by breaking with Bainimarama’s repressive trajectory. A former coup leader should show he’s put his past behind him by committing to open up civic space and engage positively with civil society, including the trade unions towards which the old government was hostile. The government should respect the media’s freedom to do its job and accept criticism as a fundamental part of democracy. The road ahead won’t be easy, and further turbulence can be expected. But Fiji’s democracy will only thrive if civil society is recognised as a vital force and has the space to carry out its work.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
Fiji’s new government should commit to enabling and working with civil society.
The government should reform media regulations to respect and protect media freedom.
The former government and security forces should commit to respecting the outcomes of the democratic process.
Cover photo by Pita Simpson/Getty Images