Friday, January 01, 2010

Year of Greater Entrenchment for Fiji’s Military Regime

by: Sandra Tarte, University of the South Pacific

In 2009, the political realities in Fiji became more clearly defined, but increasingly perplexing for its regional neighbors and development partners.

The moment of truth for the country, and for Commodore Frank Bainimarama’s military-backed government, came on 9 April when Fiji’s Court of Appeal ruled that the December 2006 coup and the interim administration it installed were illegal. This ruling removed the already somewhat tenuous constitutional basis upon which the interim government had previously claimed its political mandate. It was also the catalyst for the abrogation, one day later, of the Constitution by the President, and the declaration of a ‘new legal order’ under which the Bainimarama-led administration was reappointed. This development clearly indicated to all that there would be no turning back to the pre-December 2006 order. It also marked the further consolidation and entrenchment of the military-backed regime – a process that is likely to continue throughout 2010.

While domestic reaction to the ‘new legal order’ was largely muted, and circumscribed by severe media censorship and the imposition of a Public Emergency Decree, international and regional reaction was more forthright in its condemnation. This reaction hardened after Prime Minister Bainimarama’s announcement on 1 July of his roadmap for a return to constitutional rule. According to this ‘Strategic Framework for Change’, work on a new constitution would commence by September 2012 and would be in place by September 2013. Elections under this new constitution would be held by September 2014. Meanwhile reforms would also be implemented to ensure – as Bainimarama informed the United Nations General Assembly in September – ‘that democracy is sustainable’.

On 2 May, Fiji was suspended from participation in the Pacific Islands Forum and Forum initiatives and activities – an unprecedented step by the regional body. In September, Fiji was also suspended from the Commonwealth grouping (and its suspension from the 2010 Commonwealth Games in India was announced in November). Moreover, the Fijian Government has continued to be subjected to economic, military and diplomatic sanctions by major donors and regional players including Australia, New Zealand, the United States and – perhaps most crucially – the European Union (which has withheld critical financial assistance for the once-dominant sugar industry).

But the failure of these sanctions to weaken the resolve (or grip on power) of the Bainimarama regime – and the potential for these policies to be counterproductive to donor political and strategic interests in the region – poses policy dilemmas that are likely to be the focus of growing debate in 2010. For example, without Australian or New Zealand military assistance, Fiji’s exclusive economic zone remains without aerial and naval surveillance, exposing not only Fiji but the entire region to heightened security risks. Meanwhile, the uncompromising stance taken by Australia and New Zealand towards the Bainimarama administration is increasingly at odds with the positions of other Pacific Islands Forum member states, raising the prospect of a divided and politically weakened regional organization.

What the regional and international community have both advocated is an early return to constitutional and elected government, with the Fiji Military Forces retreating from active involvement in politics. The prospect of this occurring is very slim. Military officers continue to take up positions within the government and statutory organizations, and the military continues to plan for a long term role as guardian of the nation’s political destiny. The Dialogue Forum, announced by Prime Minister Bainimarama for commencement in February 2010, is unlikely to provide a fast-track route to elections.

It remains to be seen how Fiji and its traditional development partners resolve what is becoming an untenable impasse for all concerned. The coming year could witness some interesting diplomatic shifts, as key players seek to find new ways of engaging with Fiji and its political leadership. An interesting question in this context will be whether the ‘strong solidarity’ towards Fiji, called for by the Pacific Islands Forum in its 2009 communique, prevails, both regionally and internationally.

This is part of the special feature: 2009 in review and the year ahead.

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