Updated: Monday, February 18, 2008
Fiji is a place of stunning tropical beauty and her people are among the friendliest on earth. Yet Fiji's political make-up has puzzled many people, for it has the tendency to buck international trends at crucial points in history.
In the old days, there was just one solution to any political arguments - war, and on an extreme scale! For not only were rival chiefs and their people killed but they were also eaten - a practice which was said to be the ultimate insult to the loser. Some believe cannibalism was also a way to absorb the "mana" of the rival warrior. Some hill tribes in Fiji were in high demand because of their warfare skills - which they lent out to allies in need. Today this has manifested itself in ties and allegiances between tribes relatively large distances away - like that of the hill tribes of Navosa and the coastal people of Nadroga. Bau rose to prominence because of its ability to build such allegiances as well as utilise new technology (such as the muskets of early European sailors).
It was not until 1874 that the political climate of Fiji underwent dramatic change when the country was ceded to Great Britain. For this saw the introduction in 1879 of labourers from India to work colonial sugar plantations under an indenture system. With two quite large populations of Fijians and Indians to administer, the colonialists decide that it would be best to keep them separate as much as possible.
Some said this was to protect Fijian culture and traditions, while others believe the British didn’t care to deal with such issues and were more concerned with empire-building than any impact their advances had on the populations they ruled over. Thus a separate administrative structure was created for indigenous Fijians which saw them tried in native courts and officially placed under the jurisdiction of their chiefs. The British used this divide and rule strategy for close to 100 years – which was to have a significant impact when the British pulled out of Fiji in 1970.
Then there was Independence in 1970 which saw the Alliance government rise to power under the leadership of Fiji’s first Prime Minister Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. The Alliance government ruled until the late 1970s when a political party dominated by people of Indian ethnicity won the general election. Amid the uncertainty and politicking that followed, the winner was pipped at the finish line however by the Governor-General who swore in Ratu Mara as Interim Prime Minister – saying that the winner of the polls was unable to put forward a suitable candidate for PM in time. Thus some would argue that Fiji’s first coup de tat was not in 1987 but in the late 1970s when political maneuvering first became a powerful buzzword.
After winning the subsequent general election, Ratu Mara’s Alliance Party continued to rule Fiji until 1987 – when the political climate in Fiji changed dramatically. After 17 years of Fiji’s political parties being defined by race, the nation saw the first workers’ rights based movement in the form of the Fiji Labour Party. When the party won the election in a coalition with the National Federation Party, those who touted racial politics looked on in disbelief. Sure the NFP was known as an ethnic Indian dominated party, but FLP’s win under PM Dr Timoci Bavadra’s non-racial mandate was a puzzle to some.
At that point, a little known military man Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka – who believed there was “no other way” - walked into the picture, taking over Parliament at the point of a gun. Not only did he kick FLP and NFP out, but he also decided that the 1970 Constitution needed to go as well. Thus the 1990 Constitution followed, which entrenched a racially-based Parliament even more than the 1970 Constitution did – meaning that if anyone wanted to win an election again they would have to do so on racially-segregated lines.
Rabuka went on to become Prime Minister of Fiji under that Constitution until he had a brain flash that a less racially-based Constitution was needed if Fiji and Fijians were to prosper and live in harmony. So the 1997 Constitution was born – with the help of the NFP’s Jai Ram Reddy.
The general election that followed in 1999 saw once again the rise of the Fiji Labour Party with its union-based membership and a coalition of smaller parties including the Fijian Association and the Party of National Unity. With PM Mahendra Chaudhry at the helm, the People’s Coalition ruled for just under a year before once again, the political rhetoric swung away from democracy and towards a coup de tat.
In May 2000, failed businessman George Speight was the frontman for a group of specialist soldiers who took over Parliament. He created religious fervour around the event, selling himself as the saviour of the indigenous Fijians. However, the head of the military Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama was not buying into it. When Speight released his hostages and shifted venue from Parliament to a school outside Suva, fears of another outbreak of violence, looting and lawlessness drove the military to subdue the group. The military had taken over the running of the country and abrogated the Constitution. An interim government was created to run the country with Laisenia Qarase as caretaker Prime Minister.
When in early 2001, the court ruled that the 1997 Constitution was still alive, there were calls for a fresh general election. PM Chaudhry also supported the call for fresh elections. However, rather than reinstate Chaudhry to take the country to elections, the powers that be in the military and the Great Council of Chiefs supported moves for Qarase to remain in that role.
Qarase won the 2001 general election with his Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua party – but he faced a cloud of allegations over a multi-million dollar agriculture ministry scam that provided hand-outs to indigenous Fijians in the lead-up to the election.
In 2006, the SDL was re-elected by a narrow margin. Agitation between the military and SDL grew over contentious Bills, military spending and authority, allegations of corruption and racism - and some say a straight-out personality clash between Qarase and military head Bainimarama. After months of uncertainty, the military overthrew the SDL government on December 5, 2006.
This time Bainimarama did not abrogate the 1997 Constitution, choosing instead to take control for a month before handing power back to the President Ratu Josefa Iloilo. Ratu Josefa immediately made Bainimarama interim Prime Minister in January 2007 and this saw the swearing in of an interim Cabinet line-up which included five members of the previous Parliament (one from SDL, three FLP and one United People’s Party). Four members came from the National Alliance Party (which had failed to secure a seat in the 2006 general election), four were not linked to any political party and two came from the military.
Fiji faces some tough political questions over the next few years – not the least of which will come from the many court cases challenging the legality of the takeover. Many more of its political questions, however, involve exorcising the ghosts of the past, deciding what kind of future to nurture and finding out where exactly the people stand in the equation.