By Adam Boland
When John Key touches down in Fiji on Thursday, he will become the first New Zealand Prime Minister to do so since Voreqe “Frank” Bainimarama’s coup 10 years ago.
Mr Key says the timing is right because democracy has been restored.
So, how did Bainimarama – a former military strongman – reinvent himself and bring his country in from the cold? And is Mr Key right in declaring a win for democracy?
Quick history lesson
Frank Bainimarama seized power from Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase during a bloodless coup in December 2006 over two key issues.
The first, ironically, was that Bainimarama felt Prime Minister Qarase had been too lenient to the people behind an earlier coup in 2000.
Secondly, he was furious with moves by the Qarase government to hand over all coastal land rights to indigenous Fijians.
“We will be left with our grass skirts, our canoes and a life back to cannibalism,” he said at the time. “What will happen to the common Fijian when there are no investors?”
He argued the move would be unfair to the country’s ethnic Indian minority and destroy the thriving tourism sector.
When Qarase refused to back down, Bainimarama’s men moved in, placing the Prime Minister under house arrest.
Bainimarama promised new elections would be held in 2009 but the country was later suspended from the Commonwealth and the Pacific Islands Forum when that didn’t happen.
A new mandate
Elections were finally called for 2014 after the unveiling of a new constitution. Bainimarama stood down from the military to run for office as leader of the newly-formed FijiFirst Party.
image of bainimarama votingThe party won 32 of the 50 parliamentary seats – an overwhelming majority from an election declared by international observers to have been conducted fairly.
Political experts felt Bainimarama was endorsed for his strong record on building key infrastructure like roads and hospitals and for trying to dismantle ethnic divisions.
In his victory speech, the now democratically-elected Prime Minister Bainimarama promised to “rule for all Fijians”.
His critics say that actually means he doesn’t allow opposition.
Still ruling by decree?
“The biggest reform now needed is for FijiFirst to reach an accord with the opposition parties over the Constitution,” says Professor Robbie Robertson from Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne.
Fiji’s relatively new constitution includes an extensive bill of rights. But those rights can be easily eroded by a series of old decrees that were never removed and aren’t subject to judicial review.
They’re used selectively but enough to remind people of who’s in charge.
Makereta Komai is editor of the regional news agency PACNEWS which is based in Suva. “The situation has improved somewhat and the media is free to report here in Fiji,” she says. “But the Media Decree in place still places a lot of fear in journalists because of the fines for breaches.”
The decree sets strict parameters on how a story should be reported with special emphasis given to balance. “That is one of the major hurdles for investigative reporting,” says Komai. “Editors have canned stories because there is no comment from the other party, especially if the other party is a government official in a story relating to corruption.”
The government has found other ways to silence opposition.
Apart from FijiFirst, two other political parties are represented in parliament. The Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA) has 15 seats while the National Federation Party (NFP) has three seats.
Just last week, the NFP’s Roko Tupou Draunidalo was suspended from parliament for almost two years. Her crime was to call the Education Minister “an idiot” during the kind of robust debate considered normal in many democratic parliaments.
Draunidalo is a lawyer who in 2012 represented deposed Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase in his corruption trial.
“There are concerns that she is actually being censured for trenchant criticism of the Prime Minister, the Attorney-General and the FijiFirst government,” according to regional political analyst Tess Newton Cain from TNC Consulting.
In January, all three members of the NFP were briefly suspended. The official reason was the party had failed to use a properly certified accountant, but the timing was curious. Just two days earlier, party leader Dr Biman Prasad had written a scathing opinion piece about the state of democracy in Fiji.
After the suspension, Australian Greens senator Janet Rice claimed Fiji had moved from a military dictatorship to a parliamentary dictatorship.
Democracy a “work in progress”
James Batley was the Australian High Commissioner to Fiji when he was suddenly expelled from the country in 2009 as Bainimarama set out to prove his country’s sovereignty.
Batley still hasn’t been allowed back but has told Pasifik News Fiji’s new democracy is a work in progress.
“I think there’s always been a view in Australian circles that it was unrealistic for Fiji just to flick a switch from an unelected government under Frank Bainimarama to a fully functional democracy straight after the elections,” he says.
Mr Batley, who’s now a policy fellow at the Australian National University, says Bainimarama will be around for some time. “So it’s a question of finding ways to deal with him.”
From dictator to Mr Popular
Frank Bainimarama has done much to reshape his image on the world stage.
That includes spending more than FJD$2 million on Washington-based public relations firm, Qorvis. “When Fiji was ostracised by traditional partners such as New Zealand and Australia after the coup in 2006, Bainimarama devoted a lot of time to making new international friends and this has not changed since the 2014 elections,” says Tess Newton Cain.
The Prime Minister is often seen at world events taking leadership positions on pressing issues. “There is no justification, no excuse, for any man to inflict violence on a woman or abuse her in any way. Those who do so are cowards and criminals,” he said on domestic violence. “Fiji is a stark reminder to the world of the frightening new era that is dawning on us all,” he declared on climate change.
It seems his progressive approach doesn’t extend to same-sex marriage. When asked about it recently, he asserted “there will no same-sex marriage in Fiji in my lifetime.” He suggested anyone seeking “that rubbish” should move to Iceland.
Regional power play
And that brings us to this week’s visit by John Key.
New Zealand and Australia led the international outrage over the 2006 coup. They did all they could to freeze the South Pacific country out of regional blocs.
“They assumed in the past they could pressure Fiji and bring it to its knees,” says Swinburne’s Robbie Robertson. “They failed.”
Fiji now has strong bonds with countries like China and Indonesia. Many observers say Bainimarama was keen to show Australia and New Zealand that he could survive without their support.
It seems the New Zealand Prime Minister has accepted the new rules: “It’s time to put the past behind us and move forward.”