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Cross roads bring dilemma of change

Next month’s general election is arguably the most important that Fiji has ever had in its history.

What everyone needs to do now is to embrace this opportunity for a restoration of democracy, fully support the process and let the people decide their future.

This positivity comes with a few caveats, and in particular, there is a need to be cautious and aware of the risks to Fiji’s democracy moving forward and beyond elections.

Will the election be free and fair?

The risk factors

Two questions that are often asked are, “Will the elections actually take place?’ and ‘They be free and fair?’ It is important to recognise that Fiji is in a transition stage from military government to civilian rule.

In view of the circumstances, it is possibly a lot to ask for a completely ‘free’ path to the polls. But the fact that Interim Prime Minister Josaia Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama and his regime, entrenched and in control of the country, have decided to hold elections should be seen as a positive step in the right direction.

Will the results of the upcoming elections be true and accurate with no interference from the military? Again, we have to be positive and give the current regime the benefit of the doubt. Sure, they have reneged on past promises and have carried out illegal acts including overthrowing an elected Parliament and twice removing the people’s Constitution. But then again, they did promise elections and are now true to their word.

People’s verdict

There are risks associated with the outcome of the upcoming elections.

If Mr Bainimarama and his Fiji First Party win, will his opponents, and in particular, the ethno-nationalist elements, accept this, and not agitate for his removal?

If he loses, will the Fiji military support the new incoming Government?

The new military commander and Mr Bainimarama have said that they will accept the verdict of the people, which should also be seen as a step towards democracy.

What is the position of the military forces, and what would be the role that they would want to or expect to play in the post-election Fiji? The biggest threat to Fiji’s fragile democracy has always been, and will continue to be, the military.

Civil Government

But how do you de-militarise the government, and get the soldiers back to the barracks? In the long run, how do you reduce the size of the army and prevent them from carrying more coups? After all, Mr Bainimarama will not be around forever.

There is a huge ethnic imbalance in the current power structure in Fiji. The military force still accounts for 95% of indigenous Fijian, and the current cabinet comprises only two non-indigenous ministers.

The demography

With ethnic Fijians claiming 60% share of the population and ethnic Indians down to 30%, how do you contain future ethno-nationalist extremism that time and again re-appears in Fiji?

History has shown that coups in Fiji tend to polarise people, and in post-coup elections, Fijians tend to vote along ethnic lines. In past elections, ethnic Fijians, through communal voting, have had a political advantage.

One person one vote is something that the Coalition for Democracy, as a group, has always advocated. But as the sayings go, ‘be careful what you wish for’ and ‘beware of the tyranny of the majority’.

Challenge for Bainimarama

Should Mr Bainimarama become the elected Prime Minister, one of his biggest challenges will be on how to transition Fiji from military rule to civilian Government.

Indeed, this be a challenge to anyone leading the Government.

Sitiveni Rabuka eventually made this transition, with relative success.

And again, these areas are where a lot of support and positive encouragement must be given to Fiji, which cannot afford more instability and any more coups.

International community

The international community, and especially New Zealand and Australia, need to be commended for standing firm on their policies, in particular on the sanctions imposed, their subsequent relaxation, and for financing the drafting of the Constitution and the election process.

But this support should be extended beyond the elections.

Elections alone, as history has demonstrated, are not enough to ensure a continuation of stable democracy in Fiji.

The international community needs to be more proactive in its approach, and continue with funding for Fiji democracy. This should include leadership training programmes, with an emphasis on political leadership, and a view to identifying and developing future leaders for Fiji.

This has also been the Coalition for Democracy’s view since the 1990s.

Strengthening support

And support needs to be given to the strengthening of civil society and also the civil service, with more efforts towards developing good governance, transparency, accountability and social justice.

To ‘abandon’ Fiji after elections is a recipe for future problems, as has been the case in the elections of 1987, 1999, and 2006, all of which were followed by military coups.

Ideal outcome

Possibly, the best outcome for Fiji would most probably be that no one political party wins the majority of the vote, thus forcing them to form alliances, and work with others.

The ideal solution would be some form of a coalition government or even better, a ‘Government of National Unity’, with representatives from all successful political parties.

It is up to the people to make wise choices next month and make their votes count.

The responsibility lies with all Fiji’s leaders to make democracy work, so that a strong nation will emerge, resulting in the uplifting of the well-being of all Fiji people.

Fiji’s political leaders must rise up from the politics of differences, to the politics of commonality during the post-election era, although such a change would be difficult.

For the sake of stability, and Fiji’s people, they must sacrifice for the bigger picture of nation-building, re-conciliation and unity.

Only then will there be real hope for a lasting stable democracy.

Nik Naidu is a spokesperson for the Coalition for Democracy in Fiji (CDF), an Auckland-based human rights group. The views expressed in this article are his personal views, and not necessarily those of the Coalition for Democracy.

Military should not enter Government and vice-versa –

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