After eight years of military-backed rule, there is a level optimism in Fiji. On 17 September 2014, Fiji held its first elections since the 2006 military coup that installed Fiji’s military chief, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, as prime minister. The election result saw Frank Bainimarama's political party win a majority of seats in Fiji's new parliament.
Ethnic divisions and political instability
Since gaining independence from the United Kingdom in 1970, Fiji has suffered four coups. The first two occurred in quick succession in 1987, the third in 2000, with the last taking place in 2006.
Although this political instability has complex causes (with broader social, economic and personal conflicts as contributing factors), ethno-political divisions between the Indo-Fijian and indigenous Fijian communities are generally accepted as a major underlying factor. Historically such divisions have been nurtured and used for political gain. These divisions have likewise been exacerbated by an absence of inclusive mechanisms and processes for engendering peace and consensus decision-making.
The origins for this ethno-political discord can be found in Fiji’s pre-independence history, with the colonial rulers developing a structured separation of political power and economics along ethnic lines. This long-standing ethnic division was ultimately enshrined within Fiji’s first constitution in 1970, with the insertion of an ethno-focused electoral system.
Four decades of Fiji’s independence have seen Fijian politics becoming increasingly polarised, with a tendency to use force to resolve the resultant political disputes.
The Bainimarama Government in Fiji
In contrast to the first three coups, one of the primary reasons provided by the military leader, Frank Bainimarama, for the 2006 coup was to change these ethnically focused political structures.
In 2009 after abrogating the constitution, the Bainimarama Government introduced broad censorship and assembly restrictions under public emergency regulations. They also initiated an extensive reform process, including substantial law, public service and land reforms. Fiji was subsequently suspended from the Pacific Islands Forum and the Councils of the Commonwealth of Nations, but has since been reinstated to the Commonwealth of Nations following the 2014 elections.
The years of emergency restrictions have undoubtedly brought changes to Fiji’s media landscape, while stifling civic activity and public challenge. Fiji has also become increasingly isolated from its old international friends and groupings, while developing new relationships and new allies, for example with China and Russia.
On the road to democracy
In 2012, the Fiji Government established a Constitution Commission. Conciliation Resources supported the establishment of a Secretariat to support this constitution development process. However, the Bainimarama Government ultimately set aside the resulting draft document and produced and enacted a new constitution in September 2013.
In early 2014 a seven-person Electoral Commission was established, and the Prime Minister stood down as head of the military in order to form his own political party and contest elections.
The 2014 elections saw Bainimarama'sFiji First party win with 59.2% of the vote. The election was deemed credible by Fiji civil society and international observers, but with concerns around fairness of the election in relation to media bias and opposition political party restriction(s).