Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bainimarama Fiji coup in state of flux

by Jon Fraenkel -  The Australian 
November 17, 2010 

WITHOUT elections, it's hard to assess whether support for the regime is genuine.

FOUR years have passed since Frank Bainimarama seized power in Fiji, with few signs the coup leader is willing to bring forward the elections scheduled for 2014.

Frustrated, Australian think tanks have called for "new thinking", claiming the established foreign policy stances have failed. Former parliamentary secretary for Pacific Islands affairs Duncan Kerr, speaking at the Lowy Institute last week, urged a "strategic re-engagement" with Bainimarama and his regime.
Officials accompanying US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on her visit to Australia called for fresh talks with Fiji's government. No one would reject such approaches if they might speed up an end to military rule in Fiji. The trouble is, the talks are to be accompanied by a series of unilateral concessions to Bainimarama. such as endorsing his 2014 election date, land-leasing proposals or intended electoral reforms.

The response from the heavily censored media within the country has usually been simply to parade such endorsements as indicative of warm foreign support for Fiji's interim government.

The strategy of seeking to find areas of agreement with Fiji's coup-makers is the same as that pursued by many civil society activists within Fiji during the deliberations around the People's Charter in 2008. Then, Bainimarama used those negotiations to build up the legitimacy of his government. It was a flawed electoral system, the People's Charter proposed, which had generated racial polarisation in Fiji. Fresh elections were unwise, it was said, unless Fiji's constitution was amended.

Dialogue was needed to achieve such an outcome, but then, just as preparations were under way to begin the dialogue, Bainimarama dumped the scheduled talks and abrogated the 1997 constitution, pulling the rug from under those trying to coax him back to democracy.

The calls for "strategic re-engagement" with Bainimarama imply there was a previous phase of disengagement. In fact, efforts to initiate dialogue with Bainimarama have been continuing since the coup of December 2006.

In July last year, Bainimarama's new strategic policy document not only put off elections until September 2014 but explicitly rejected any discussion towards a new constitution until 2012. Most of those working on the inside urging compromise have since been sacked or sidelined.

From the outside, Bainimarama's government appears well-entrenched. Yet it remains in continual flux, both in personnel and policy orientation.

The cabinet now features a group of old hands from the 1987 coup era. Military officers occupy several senior portfolios and permanent secretary positions, and parts of the state have been absorbed under military jurisdiction.

In the process, tensions have emerged, with a succession of strategically placed military officers falling foul of their superiors.

Policies too have changed. The talk of multiracialism and a "clean-up" campaign against corruption, which featured strongly in the early months after the coup, has diminished. Official speeches still proclaim "multiracial" objectives, entailing greater opportunities for the 37 per cent Fiji Indian minority, but Bainimarama's off-the-cuff comments in the vernacular convey a strongly pro-indigenous message.

The 2006 coup is increasingly depicted as promising success where previous coups failed.

Early this year, Bainimarama toured Fiji's provinces and far-flung islands, soliciting indigenous support with promises of roads, piped water and rural electrification projects. What became the standard response in ethnic Fijian villages was to apologise for past hostility and embrace the "People's Charter", which few have read but which many regard as symbolic of acquiescence under the new order. Bainimarama has been welcomed as the conquering warrior chief, to be granted ceremonial recognition by the "people of the land" (now officially called the i-Taukei).

Without elections, the genuineness of the support is difficult to gauge: Bainimarama still has more enemies at home than abroad. As often occurs in the traditional order, even those with deep-seated grievances engage in public displays of warm support.

Claims that Australian policy on Fiji has failed rely on an exaggerated view of our influence in the region, and imply success should be measured by greater obedience on the part of island leaders. Yet Fijian politics has long followed its own dynamics, rather than some agenda set in Canberra, Wellington or Washington.

Jon Fraenkel is a senior research fellow at the Australian National University
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