For the first time, prime minister and coup maker Frank Bainimarama faces the possibility of defeat. Can democracy survive the coming elections in Fiji?
Fijians will go to the polls before the end of 2022. The election will be the third since the prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, returned his country to a form of democracy in 2014. The Bainimarama government made major and desirable changes to the way people voted. Whereas the citizens of Fiji had previously voted largely according to race, now, under an open proportional representation system, they vote irrespective of race. Each candidate is given a number and voters select a number in an election that returns 51 candidates to parliament across the whole country, which is a single constituency. All parties standing for election must exceed a five percent hurdle, which has discouraged minor parties or single candidates from putting themselves forward.
The open proportional representation voting system favoured Bainimarama in both the 2014 and 2018 elections. The system is devised to assist parties with a well-known or charismatic leader, and no one in Fiji is better known than Frank Bainimarama, the architect of the 2006 military coup and political leader of Fiji for the last 16 years. Counting is by the d’Hondt method, which means that once a popular leader has reached the necessary quota to be elected, his or her surplus votes are distributed to other members of the party. Hence a common complaint in Fiji is that many members of parliament are elected on the “coat-tails” of Bainimarama.
In 2014, FijiFirst, Bainimarama’s new party, won 59.2 percent of the national vote and 32 seats, the Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA) 28.2 percent and 15 seats, and the small National Federation Party 5.5 percent and three seats. Bainimarama, together with his Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum, dominated the new parliament and treated it as little more than an instrument of their own power. Four years later FijiFirst won again but by a narrower margin, with 50.02 percent of the votes and 27 seats, SODELPA with 28.18 percent and 21 seats, and the National Federation Party with 7.38 percent and three seats.
The 2018 election pitted one ageing coup leader against another – Bainimarama (2006 coup), at 64 years against Sitiveni Rabuka (1987 coups) at 70 years. This year, four years older, they contest the prime ministership again. In 2022, Rabuka is no longer leading SODELPA. Instead, following a split with former colleagues, he leads a new party of his own making called the People’s Alliance. SODELPA still exists, but its prospects appear poor. Both parties support elements of indigenous Fijian tradition and are likely to attract more votes from the majority indigenous population than the minority Fiji Indian one.
In analysing the coming Fiji elections, one key point stands out: Bainimarama, as the leading political figure in Fiji, is familiar only with success. Even in 2004, when the government was civilian, Bainimarama refused to allow the government to terminate his five- year commander’s contract. From 2006 onward, as the self-appointed prime minister following the coup, he was unrestrained by parliament, convention, expulsion from the Pacific Islands Forum, or foreign disapproval. In 2009, he declared a new legal order, sacked the judiciary, abrogated the constitution, imposed strict curbs on the media, and ruled by decree for the next five years. When open elections were restored in 2014, they came with restrictions on freedom of speech and curbs on the judiciary.
Bainimarama’s eight years as prime minister of a “democratic” Fiji have been characterised by the repeated electoral success of his party. The question of accepting the result of the 2022 election – the fundamental test of democracy itself – now faces Bainimarama. After the years of COVID-19, the temporary collapse of the tourism industry, and growing national debt, a third victory for FijiFirst is by no means guaranteed.
Speaking recently to Fiji citizens in New Zealand on the Indian station Radio Tarana, Bainimarama said “It is true whatever the results may be, (every)one including me will have to accept it, but it is obvious Rabuka will not want to accept the outcome.” Bainimarama himself did not accept the result of the 2006 election, and the election results he has accepted since were in his favour. It does not seem unreasonable to speculate that, should he fail to win an outright majority in parliament, he might decline to accept the result of the 2022 election.
There remains a military escape clause in Fiji’s 2013 constitution, which empowers the military forces “to ensure at all times the security, defence, and well-being of Fiji and all Fijians.” The 2022 election is likely to create a complicated political situation, given that proportional representation may well return every party with fewer than 50 percent of the votes, and the only possible government would be either a minority or a coalition. Such a situation might be resolved by a perfectly constitutional military intervention for the “well-being of Fiji and all Fijians,” even though the military commander Major General Jone Logavatu Kalouniwai is said not to want it.
Australia needs to be ready for such an outcome, especially since warm relations have recently been established between Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Bainimarama, who described their meeting as “wonderful.” Does Australia do what Alexander Downer did at the time of the 2006 coup and declare that “the ordinary people of Fiji and the institutions of government in Fiji should show passive resistance to this imposition of dictatorship on their country”? Does it stand by the principle of democracy as enunciated in numerous Pacific regional declarations? Or does it, for reasons of state, find a set of emollient words to satisfy Bainimarama?
With any luck, military intervention in the elections might be avoided. Should Bainimarama fail to secure a majority of Fijians’ votes, he may find a coalition partner he can tolerate, and democracy “Fiji-style” can continue.
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Stewart Firth is a Research Fellow in the Department of Pacific Affairs, Australian National University College of Asia and the Pacific. He has a D. Phil. from Oxford. He lived in Fiji for more than six years as Professor of Politics and has published widely on Fiji.
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