|STAND DOWN FRANK: Some way still has to be found to ease Bainimarama out of power and to rein in Fiji’s too-powerful army. pic The Economist |
FIJI’S military commander and prime minister, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, promises that martial law will be lifted on January 7th, and that consultations on a new constitution will begin in February. The announcement from the troubled islands was welcomed by the Commonwealth, of which Fiji is a wayward member, and by Australia, its biggest neighbour. The Commonwealth secretary-general, Kamalesh Sharma, said that lifting public-emergency regulations was “long overdue”, and called for a fresh election.
Australia’s prime minister, Julia Gillard, said it was a “first step”, but that democracy had to be restored. Both are right to be cautious.
Martial law was first introduced after Mr Bainimarama seized power in December 2006. It was lifted the following May, but then reimposed in September 2007 to head off protests by public-sector unions, traditional chiefs and leaders of the Methodist church.
Since April 2009, when the country’s constitution was abrogated, martial law has been a permanent fixture. Mr Bainimarama has ruled by decree, putting in place draconian media and other laws that will permit continued censorship and harassment of the government’s opponents even after martial law is lifted.
So far, there is little indication that the government intends to go easier on its opponents. Over the new-year weekend, several prominent politicians were arrested for “urging political violence”—rumoured to be for helping to foment protest against a new mining development in the interior of Fiji’s largest island, Viti Levu.
Ending martial law is consistent with Mr Bainimarama’s promise in July 2009 to hold a new election by September 2014. He also promised that consultations towards a new constitution would begin next year. For those to take place, he acknowledges, controls on press freedoms and public meetings need to be removed.
Yet this would not be the first such exercise. In 2008 a National Council for Building a Better Fiji involved mainly cherry-picked regime supporters. In 2009 a Political Dialogue Forum was at first intended to include the political parties, but it ended up excluding even those that had once sympathised with the Commander’s coup. So the Commonwealth’s Mr Sharma has good reason for insisting that February’s consultations need to be “fully inclusive”, aimed at “a genuine national consensus on the constitution, clearing the way for credible elections”.
Mr Bainimarama’s latest announcement comes after a relatively quiet year in Fiji. The main dark cloud has been the harassment of trade unions, in the form of arbitrary arrests and restrictions on workers’ rights in “essential industries”. Gone, however, are the rifts between 2007 and 2010, when a succession of high-profile politicians and army officers broke away to join the opposition.
Acquiescence, submission and simple coup-weariness seem to have set in among Mr Bainimarama’s opponents.
What is more, after a severe slump between 2007 and 2009 the economy has fared better, helped by an inflow of Australian tourists to Fiji’s sun-soaked resorts. Soft loans from Beijing have financed key infrastructure projects, helping to position Chinese companies for expansion into other sectors, including bauxite mining. Concerned about a loss of regional influence, Australia has just relaxed its tough stance towards the island-state, announcing that it would double bilateral aid, to A$36m ($37m) in 2013-14. Most of the money will go towards health, education and helping to alleviate poverty.
So Mr Bainimarama has good reason to feel more secure, and to grab the opportunity to obtain greater acceptance for his coup-spawned government both at home and abroad. Yet there are grounds for thinking that, with luck, things may not all go his way. In Fiji, constitutional-reform processes following its all-too-frequent coups have a habit of developing a momentum of their own as they seek to obtain a broad degree of legitimacy.
That is what happened in Fiji a decade after a coup in 1987. Contrary to expectations, a new constitution that emerged from the long consultation process dealt with many of the grievances of the minority Indian population in Fiji. So even if the early stages look heavily compromised this time round, as they did the last time, the final result might prove broadly acceptable. But for that to happen, some way still has to be found to ease Mr Bainimarama out of power and to rein in Fiji’s too-powerful army.
Lifting martial law in Fiji