On Fiji And Its CriticsApril 18th, 2009
Oh dear. In the black and white universe in which the likes of No Right Turn reside, I’m now allegedly a supporter of despotism for daring to present evidence that the structure of the Fiji electoral system – as played out in the elections of 2001 and 2006 – just might have something to do with the mess that Fiji is currently in. NRT is happier living in a world where Bainimarama is evil, and where anyone who thinks anything else is evil by association. It must be very warm and comfy in there.
Actually, my intent was not to defend Bainimarama or his recent actions. I thought I had criticized him on a number of fronts in my piece, and had applauded Ratu Jone Madraiwiwi for his criticisms. My main point was that cleaning up the mess will need more than monitoring a new election, ticking it off and going home. Given Fiji’s track record in the past 25 years, a democratic pageant will not be sustainable if Fiji simply returns to the system that culminated in the racially polarized election of 2006, and Bainimarama’s coup.
Yes, it would be nice if everyone had sat down after the election in 2006, had a cup of tea, shook hands and vowed to come back and do better in 2011. I’m sure NRT and I would have both preferred that. What I was trying to show in my piece was why that was not going to happen, in terms that I hoped were more useful than NRT simply saying Frank Bainimarama : Bad Man. Now to boot, Chris Trotter and I have been added to the Bad Men list. Allegedly, I have a problem with democracy.
This is bit rich, given that – in defence of democracy – I had just produced statistical evidence of how the voting system in Fiji is unfairly weighted in favour of indigenous Fijians ( and the more conservative, rural ones at that) and against other communities and localities. Like the former vice-President dismissed by Bainimarama, I also criticized the alternative vote system. Interestingly, NRT himself has slammed the re-structuring of Auckland for much the same reasons : that it gives an unfair advantage to incumbents, cedes control to a cabal and favours a block voting system likely to produce undemocratic outcomes. Yet what NRT sees as a democratic outrage in Auckland, he completely ignores in Fiji – apparently, this is just one of those ‘flaws’ that Fijians need to grin and bear. Perhaps it is not me who has the problem with democracy in Fiji.
I don’t think Bainimarama is evil. It is even possible to regard him as a tragic figure, without in any way absolving him of responsibility for his actions. Only two and half years ago, he enjoyed overwhelming support in Fiji for (a) rescuing Fiji from the brink at the time of the Speight coup and for (b) ending the corrupt, incompetent and racially divisive Qarase government. I have said plainly – and say it again – that his subsequent brutal and clumsy actions have now destroyed his ability to pursue the laudable aims that led to his coup.
To NRT it seems, a coup is never, ever justifiable – and elections, any elections at all, always hold the moral high ground. I disagree. The situation in Fiji is not a theoretical exercise about the ethics of governance. There are extreme situations where more evil is perpetuated by facilitating an elected government to govern than by taking up arms against it. Now, who-ever makes that call has to take the consequences, and has to ensure that their deeds in power validate the drastic means they have adopted. Here, Bainimarama has clearly failed. In this particular example though, the illegality of the coup does not de-legitimise its original aims. No more than the fact that Qarase won such a flawed election validates his racist programme.
Again though, that is not the main point. It is what we do now. Bainimarama’s regime is not sustainable. Neither is the system that inspired his actions. Personally, I don’t think Fiji can move forward unless and until it addresses the racial division, injustice and corruption that Bainimarama brought into daylight, and then failed spectacularly to resolve. Beyond calling everyone else names, perhaps NRT can turn his talents in that direction, of how Fiji is going to recover. My concern is that recovery will simply mean the enabling of another Qarase or a Jone Baledrokadroka to grab power, setting the destructive cycle in motion once again. NRT would probably say, once again, that such mistakes are for Fiji to make. Of course.
The trouble is though, no one is going to be able to hit a magic “Reset” button where that choice by Fijians can be carried out freely and fairly. Fiji, no less than the Middle East, burns within the confines of its historical legacy. This includes : Bavadra removed by Rabuka, Rabuka replaced at the ballot box by Chaudhry who was removed by Speight, who was removed by Bainimarama who made Qarase’s election victory possible in 2001, and then removed him in 2006.
Of course, fair elections are preferable to this. But if in the real world the society remains racially and politically polarized, the remedy has to include reform of the ‘democratic’ structures that keep begetting these outcomes. The 1997 constitution was just such an attempt. It clearly has to be revisited. But by whom ? And on whose instructions? The Court of Appeal crystallized the problem when – at the end of its judgement – it simply asked the system to conjure up, out of thin air, a responsible and independent person to run the country. Fantastic. Literally, fantastic.
Bainimarama has kept claiming that to carry out genuine reform properly will take time. There hasn’t been a proper census in Fiji since 1996 for instance, and the electoral rolls for the 2006 election were in disastrous shape – and that’s before anyone got started on the major task, of re- shaping the race-based system of voting.
The outside world, focused all but exclusively on the issue of legitimacy, has never given those claims for more time any credence. Now it is too late. Bainimarama, and Fiji, have run out of time.
Footnote : Of course the President’s powers had been limited but not extinguished by the 1997 constitution. The restrictions on prerogative power essentially entailed going back to Parliament, rather than exercising reserve powers to dissolve and dismiss – and that had, to some extent, been quite deliberate. It had been meant to prevent the kind of collusion perceived by some to have occurred in the 1980s between Rabuka and Ganilau, and later with Mara. It also meant Fiji could not become the kind of banana republic Australia was in the 1970s – where its governor-general could sack an elected Prime Minister, and get away with it.
My contention that this otherwise laudable restriction amounted to a flaw in the 1997 constitution, had to do with the problems arising in the reverse situation – and the ruling out of a dismissal in the event of a genuine breakdown in governance and social order, in conditions where sending the situation back to the parliamentary debating chamber isn’t a realistic option.
The Court of Appeal believed this was still an option. As NRT indicates, it felt the President’s actions were premature and unjustified. The High Court on the other hand, had felt that the President’s actions were not premature or unjustified at all, especially since Qarase had left the capital. Again, it would have been nice if everyone could have regrouped, cooled down and talked their differences through in Parliament.
That might have been difficult, though. Bainimarama was facing a society that had just been dangerously polarized by a cynically racist election campaign, run by a government now intent on passing a slate of even more racially divisive laws – not to mention its plans to pardon and promote a group of people who had tried their best to murder him six years before. That doesn’t condone his actions. But given the buildup to the events of December 2006, the route of sending everything back to Parliament was highly fraught – in the view of the High Court at least – and risked a descent into social chaos. The risk was palpable, no matter how satisfying it might be for NRT and the Court of Appeal to insist that people should simply have been made to behave in a proper and constitutional fashion. That’s a fine principle. I think we can agree on that.