Pacific Scoop

Fiji’s ‘popular dictator’ poll severe blow for foreign-based critics of regime

Julia Gillard

Australian Pime Minister Julia Gillard ... "What on earth will she be making of the fact that the so-called regional pariah, Voreqe Bainimarama, is three times more popular with his own people than she is with hers?" Photo: Alexander Winkler / PMC

Pacific Scoop:
Analysis – By Graham Davis

Regional policy makers are reeling at the implications of a remarkable opinion poll that shows overwhelming public support in Fiji for Voreqe Bainimarama – widely regarded as a Pacific pariah for his 2006 coup and continuing refusal to bow to demands for an early election.

The poll – commissioned by the independent Australian think tank, the Lowy Institute – reveals that Bainimarama enjoys the support of 66 per cent of Fijians, with 39 per cent of those questioned strongly supporting the premise that he is doing a good job as prime minister.

The full report is also a snapshot of Fijian opinion on a host of other issues, including widespread irritation at Australia and New Zealand’s continuing intransigence on Fiji.

PIF 40 years logoThe fact that two thirds of the country has thrown its weight behind a man who seized power through the barrel of the gun is little short of astonishing.

These are figures that most other regional leaders would kill for. By way of contrast, popular support for the Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, plunged to a new low of 23 percent in the latest Newspoll released this week. And even New Zealand’s John Key – who has the “popular” appellation regularly attached to his name these days – can only muster a 52 percent approval rating.

There is no indication of a fix. The Fiji government had “no knowledge whatsoever” that the opinion poll was being conducted, according to government spokesperson Sharon Smith-Johns.

And the sample of 1032 people was selected by long-time Fiji pollster, Tebbutt Research, whose surveys for the Fiji Times newspaper were accepted as accurate by all political parties in the years preceding Bainimarama’s coup.

Voreqe Bainimarama

"King Frank" Bainimarama ... "Something in the report for everyone." Photo: Fiji Minfo

To counter the inevitable questions about whether it is a fair representation of national opinion, the survey was also supervised by the respected Australian pollster, Sol Lebovic, the retired former chairman of Newspoll. So as they flay around in rage and bewilderment, the regime’s legion of critics are left with very little cause to cry foul.

The Lowy Institute is also no lapdog of Bainimarama’s, in spite of the anti-regime website Coup 4.5 – branding it “pro-regime” in its own reaction to the story.

The head of the Institute’s Melanesian Programme, Jenny Hayward-Jones, has been a fierce critic of Bainimarama in the past but recently urged Australia and NZ to re-engage with Fiji to help the dictator keep his promise to hold elections in 2014.

In her own explanation of the Lowy poll, Hayward-Jones was anxious to stress that while some of its findings will please Bainimarama and the regime, the overwhelming endorsement of Fijians for the principle of democracy – if not its practical application – means there is something in the report for everyone.

Yet this is still a massive boost for the regime and a massive blow to those who keep portraying Voreqe Bainimarama as a hate figure for ordinary Fijians.

The poll appears to validate Fiji’s claim that much of the opposition to the regime is external and that the so called pro-democracy movement abroad receives disproportionate media attention while the bulk of the population gets on with their lives.

It is certainly a ringing endorsement of Bainimarama’s programme to provide basic services to rural areas of the country such as education, health, transport infrastructure and clean water that were long neglected by previous administrations.

The fact that a large proportion of Indo-Fijians endorse his leadership also points to the regime’s success in thwarting indigenous extremists, imposing the notion of racial equality and tackling the security concerns of ordinary people.

Jenny Hayward-Jones

Lowy's Jenny Hayward-Jones ... in the past, a "fierce critic" of Bainimarama. Photo: Alex Perrottet / PMC

Doubtless to the consternation of his foreign critics, there appears to be little sympathy in the general populace for those bastions against the regime like the local human rights lobby, the trade unions and the Methodist Church.

There’s an intriguing sidelight in Lowy’s disclosure that the poll was made possible by a private donation from one Mark Johnson AO. Johnson happens to be a member of one of Fiji’s most distinguished kai valagi ( European) families who has risen to dizzying corporate heights in Australia.

He was born in Suva – the son of legendary local trader, Tui Johnson – and attended Suva Boys Grammar School before going on to Melbourne University, Harvard and a stellar business career.

Johnson has been deputy chair of Macquarie Bank, sits on a string of prestigious Australian boards and has also chaired both the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and APEC’s Business Advisory Council – one of three Australian business figures handpicked by the prime minister to advise on Asia Pacific engagement.

He retains close links to Fiji and has been exploring for minerals in Vanua Levu, the country’s second biggest island. With his financial support for the Lowy poll, he has done his country of birth a singular service.

Will it make any difference in softening regional attitudes to Fiji? Probably not. Australia and NZ have far too much face to lose by backing down on their consistently hard line towards Bainimarama, though there’s some sign that John Key may be willing to modify his own tough stance.

Many of Fiji’s supporters will be hoping that the Lowy poll shames Canberra and Wellington into at least grudging acceptance of the regime’s election timetable of September 2014.

But shame is generally in very short order, especially in Canberrra, where Julia Gillard soldiers on even as many of her supporters describe her as a dead woman walking.

What on earth will Gillard be making of the fact that the so called regional pariah, Bainimarama, is three times more popular with his own people than she is with hers?

“Hated dictator”? Hardly.

Independent Fiji-born journalist Graham Davis publishes the blog Grubsheet. This article is republished with permission.

Download the Lowy poll report on Fiji

Academics sceptical over Lowy poll on Fiji

1 comment:

  1. mojee, 18. October 2011, 8:37

    There you go Julia Gillard!!