In an interview with Fiji’s coup leader in The Australian ((‘Dictators Plea to Kevin Rudd’, The Australian, 1/5), Graham Davis reports that Commodore Bainimarama said an election this year would restore the "racist" government of former prime minister Laisenia Qarase.
Was this an acknowledgement by Bainimarama that the real reason he has suspended elections until 2014 is because he does not have political support? If so, he has undermined the core argument of the very person who was interviewing him: Graham Davis
Until now, the coup leader’s sympathisers – like Graham Davis – have argued that Australian and New Zealand pressure on Fiji to hold elections was unwarranted because it was necessary to change the electoral system first (‘Dealing with the Dictator’, The Australian 16/4).
Like Bainimarama, Davis claimed that Fiji’s communally-based voting system was itself responsible for perpetuating racial polarization. ‘Qarase and his ilk’, Davis wrote (quite wrongly) ‘can only be kept at bay if the electoral system is changed from one that favours indigenous Fijians to one that gives every vote equal weight’.
This was also given by Davis as a reason for opposing international pressure on Fiji to return to the polls: ‘Why is Australia and the rest of the international community insisting on an immediate expression of the public will when Fiji’s electoral playing field is yet to be levelled?’
Those of us who oppose the coup never believed this justification. Many of us support changes to the electoral system, but not under the barrel of a gun (see also Firth, letter 17/4, Robertson, letter 18/4).
Now that Mr. Bainimarama has abrogated his country’s constitution, he cannot use the excuse of seeking political consensus around his reforms to the voting system to explain long delays before an election.
While the constitution was still in force, it was at least conceivable that the regime needed time for political dialogue, which would then enable a constitutional amendment within the law. Now nothing prevents a decree to immediately introduce a new voting regime.
So why the delay before elections? It is because the 57% indigenous Fijians would, as the Commodore told Mr Davis, support the government he ousted 29 months ago. What of the 37% Fiji Indian population? At the last elections in May 2006, four out of every five of the Fiji Indians backed the Labour Party, whose leader this week told The Australian that Bainimarama’s government is ‘autocratic and dictatorial’ (27/4).
In other words, we are now at a very dangerous point in Fiji’s history – where a military coup leader has shed his claims to be spearheading systemic reform, and acknowledged that his seizure of power is nothing but a naked power grab.
Senior Research Fellow
Australian National University