With four coups during the last three decades a Fiji, a coup never seems to be too far away. Human rights advocates are questioning the degree of democracy offered in next month’s election, says this Asia-Pacific Journalism report.
Special Report – By Lucas Dahlström
Fiji will hold its first democratic election since the military coup in 2006 next month but with a military backed regime a democratic election is not always what people may think it is.
Human rights activists are now questioning the kind of democracy being offered with seven parties contesting the general election on September 17.
“Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama’s eight years in power have seen ongoing serious human rights violations fuel a climate of fear that must be brought to an end,” says Amnesty International’s 36-page report on human rights in Fiji ahead of the election.
Prime Minister Bainimarama’s party FijiFirst is, according to the latest polls, getting enough support to form a government of their own.
But these polls are not to be trusted, according to Nik Naidu, spokesperson for the Coalition for Democracy in Fiji (CDF).
“The margin of error is most probably 30 – 40 percent,” says Naidu.
According to him people might be too afraid to openly admit in polls that they are against Bainimarama.
Amnesty International sees the silencing of the people as one of the major issues in the country leading up to the election.
”While there’s been some improvements made to the amount of freedom allowed by the military government, we still see people who are reluctant to speak out, especially in the media,” says Bayldon.
The reasons behind this are the draconian laws in the country that restrain people wanting to openly criticise the government, including the Fiji Media Industry Development Decree.
According to Amnesty, journalists in the country may face two years of imprisonment for printing something that is not in national interest.
People attending public meetings that are not authorised can face five years in prison.
“And if organisations like Amnesty have people there who do something that is ‘electioneering’, according to the government, they may face up to 10 years in prison,” says Bayldon.
There have not been many arrests due to these decrees, but according to Amnesty, the low rate of arrests is due to the government succeeding in silencing people who would like to speak out.
Because of this Amnesty is questioning the degree of democracy in the elections.
“It’s looking as it will be free and well run on election day, but we have concern that the election will be unfair and undemocratic because of the lack of ability for people to speak out and for the media to publish the stories they want to. Because of the climate of fear, it’s questionable if it can be called a democratic election at all,” says Bayldon.
Naidu says that it is naïve to assume that the elections will be democratic from a Western point of view.
According to him they are as democratic as they can be – in a military ruled country.
“PM Bainimarama has said that he will accept the outcome of the election, even if the opposition should win. But will the military accept it? If they don’t, there will be another coup and the military will put Bainimarama straight back to power,” says Naidu.
According to Naidu, it will be the military that decides who will run the country. No matter what is the outcome of the election.
“And PM Bainimarama does have a head start,” says Naidu.
But not everyone agrees with Naidu’s view.
According to Jenny Hayward-Jones, the Melanesia programme director for the Lowy Institute for International Policy, while the army does possess a significant influence, it is not the sole arbiter of political choices in Fiji.
“There are arguments that regular soldiers are more likely to be allied to the cause advocated by SODELPA (Social Democratic Liberal Party) than to Bainimarama’s party because of their familial links and ties to traditional culture and power structures,” says Hayward-Jones.
“They may support Bainimarama because he has looked after them and ensured good employment prospects but are not necessarily all behind his cause.”
Naidu says that with four coups since 1987 in the country, a coup never seems to be too far away.
“Whether the outcome of the election will be respected short term is a big grey area, and judging from Fiji’s history and military history this will not be respected,” says Naidu, who does not believe that an election is the long-term solution to the countries’ problems.
“The long term solution to avoid what they are calling the coup culture, is a whole range of processes that has to be done.
“And New Zealand and Australia can’t just fund elections and be happy with the result and then step back. They need to continue to hold Fiji’s hand, and invest in strengthening a civil society, invest in improving transparency and good governance in Fiji.
“At the same time, reduce the military’s power and reduce its size and its capability to the point where they are no longer a threat to the democracy in Fiji.
“Otherwise we will see more coups in the country,” says Naidu.
Lucas Dahlström is a Finnish student journalist on the Inclusive Journalism Initiative (IJI) programme at AUT University doing the Asia-Pacific Journalism course.