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Democracy still elusive in Fiji
Written by Tangata Vainerere   
Tuesday, 03 February 2009

(Reports from TVNZ): Fiji’s interim Prime Minister and military commander Commodore Frank Bainimarama likes a challenge, but Fiji's embattled leader won't be rising to the latest one set by his frustrated neighbours.


Analysts believe the troubled archipelago will fail the latest challenge set by the region to hold democratic elections this year.

Commodore Bainimarama has indicated as much himself, telling local media that Fiji's position - a slower path to democracy - won't be altered, even with an ultimatum.


The military man has also suggested he'd like to keep the top job for another 10 years.


But Brij Lal, a Pacific specialist at Australian National University (ANU), says there's no way the military rule, established in a December 2006 coup, can last 10 years.

 While change won't occur in the time frame hoped, it is only a matter of time, he told AAP. 

“This is an interim administration under siege,” Professor Lal says.


“Don't be fooled by all Bainimarama's bluster. He is ruling with guns and fear, not with popular support.


“And while he might be thumbing his nose at the region right now the government won't be able to keep it up.”


Commodore Bainimarama led the country's fourth coup that ousted then indigenous Prime Minister Lasenia Qarase more than two years ago.


In that time he has replaced many key government figures with military officials and repeatedly broken promises to hold an election to return the country to democracy.


The reason for the delay, he claims, is the need to reform the current communal voting system that assigns votes along ethnic lines, giving indigenous Fijians an advantage over the Fiji Indian minority.


The process is not simple. Any change to the electoral framework requires amendments to the country's constitution, a difficult process that will take 12 to 15 months from when the interim government and other political parties agree on a new electoral system.


The extended hold-up, including several false starts when Bainimarama himself set dates and let them pass, has increasingly frustrated Fiji's neighbours, and last week their patience ran out.


Last Tuesday, the 16-member countries of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) took unprecedented action and ordered that an election be called by May 1 or the nation would be suspended from the key regional organisation.


This tough line was the brainchild of Australia and New Zealand but supported by Fiji's neighbours and strongly endorsed by the US.


With Commodore Bainimarama declaring he won't budge from reforms, the result is an impasse that will, if things proceed as planned, see Fiji automatically ousted from the group, further alienating the country.


While suspension would embarrass Fiji and exclude it from some regional deals, Lal says the economic impact will be minimal.


“I wouldn't be surprised if the military has already written the forum off as a loss and moved on,” he said

“The problem then remains that Fiji is further isolated and Australia and New Zealand are no closer to the democracy that they are trying to bring about.”


Stewart Price, a senior researcher on Fiji governance at ANU, said there are two strong but opposing ways of viewing it.


“On one hand, what Bainimarama is trying to do, change the voting system, is entirely desirable, something the country desperately needs,” Mr Price said.


“In that sense, maybe Australia and New Zealand should be standing back and giving him a bit more room, a bit more time, to do it.”


But on the flip side, he says, there is no reason to believe Bainimarama is being driven by these worthy principles.


“We have to remember he is a coup leader and every coup has had it's justification,” he said


“This one just happens to be all about good governance and multi-racialism, but we don't have to believe Bainimarama is enormously sincere about these things.”


He said it was clear the military has had a taste of power and was not keen to relinquish it in a hurry.


Both Professor Lal and Mr Price believe military rule will continue for at least the next couple of years before a re-structured election is held.


“Being under siege, being harassed by their regional neighbours, and having little local support for what they're doing will get too much over time” Professor Lal said.   “Eventually, they'll have no choice.”


But even an election, warns Price, is unlikely to change much. The level of ethnic unrest and the continued strength of Fiji's military - the strongest of any small country in the world - would ensure another coup soon follows.


“We know that it's very likely Fiji's indigenous leader, Qarase, would win an election, simply for demographic reasons, but that would not be accepted by the Indian Fijians so he would be overthrown all over again.


“It's a vicious cycle, a very sad one, and one that seems hard to escape, but Bainimarama himself will eventually go.”….PNS (ENDS)

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 03 February 2009 )
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