Fiji election 2014: “Whose nation is it, anyway?”

This month, the people of Fiji go to the polls for the first time in eight years. The conditions and context in which the Fiji Islanders will elect their government are unlike any in the country’s modern history: the military is at the helm of power, the voting is based on a principle of one-person one-vote, and the constitution stipulates “Fijian” as a shared national name for all citizens irrespective of ethnicity. There is no clear mandate for any of the political parties contesting the upcoming election. This in turn means that we cannot easily predict the outcome of the election – for which polling begins in some parts of the country on 3rd September – nor of the ensuing days, weeks, months and years.
Will the country descend into yet another crisis of coups and violence? Will democracy have its day? Will government continue to be synonymous with military rule? Will all the people presently designated as Fijian remain so after the votes are counted and policies are shaped? The implicit question underlying all of these is perhaps most appropriately summed up as: “Whose nation is it, anyway?” The answer remains as elusive now as in the past. This, I argue, is because political discourse in the beautiful yet conflicted South Pacific archipelago remains oriented towards the ethnic conflict paradigm.
Ethnicity has been a framing device of social, economic, historical and political discourse in Fiji since the settlement of Indo-Fijian labourers in the early 1900s. Brought in to develop the country’s economy through sugar-cane farming, while the British sought to maintain the cultural integrity and practices of the indigenous Fijians, the Indo-Fijians have long clamoured for equal status and combined with their Fijian colleagues in workers’ struggles against the state. It is the democratic and socialist underpinnings of the Indo-Fijian community that has led to their being identified as enemies of the Fijians, as aspirational colonisers.
What has ensued is a blanket acceptance that ethnic conflict between Fijians and their Indo-Fijian brethren is a fact of life in Fiji, despite growing visibility of intra-Fijian struggles for power. When election results have reflected the fracturing of the Fijian ethnic bloc – through the formation of Fiji Labour Party-led government coalitions – coups have sufficed to swing the pendulum of political power back to indigenous rule. As in 1987 and 2000, in 2006 the country faced the dilemma of yet another coup, but this latest event shifted the parameters of what coups do in Fiji.
In 2006, the military assumed political power that was already in indigenous hands. On a personal level, there was an element of RFMF Commander Bainimarama’s appetite for power, whetted during the 2000 crisis; and his refusal to countenance legislation that might free people involved in personally attacking him during the 2000 crisis. With respect to the ethnic principle underlying the previous two coups, 2006 displaced it rather than embracing it; and in terms of the ever-growing visibility of intra-Fijian power plays, it announced– albeit perhaps temporarily – the arrival of a new force in Fijian cultural-political terms: that of the military as opposed to the chiefs.
The 2006 coup initially brokered an image of itself as reorienting the country towards a future of multi-ethnic peace – a coup-less future. Constitutionally, every citizen of Fiji is now a Fijian; the voting system has discarded ethnic voting seats which is unprecedented in Fiji’s electoral history, which means there is now one constituency and one person, one vote. The Great Council of Chiefs, the base of Fijian power institutionalised during colonialism but no less dynamic in its internal dynamic power plays, was disbanded, and effort was made to shift indigenous Fijians’ conception of the vanua towards a horizontal democracy depending on individual consciousness.
But, withdrawing ethnicity as a frame of political discourse and reference of identity has backfired. After eight years of military-enshrined rule, of paradoxes and uncertainties, of fragile narratives and clear abuses, of decrees and dictatorship, of equality irrespective of ethnicity, of equal voting rights, Fiji’s present political discourse is closely wedded to the discourse of its past. So, as 17th September – the main election day – approaches, we are led to ponder what hope is there for real sustainable change in Fiji?
I was asked by one leading think tank to write on the power of the youth, on the basis that between 30-40% of Fiji’s electorate are first-time voters. My response: albeit that the global landscape is dominated by a clamour for democracy whose figurehead remains (wrong-headedly, in my view) the Arab Spring, people can only vote within the scope of the politics parlayed before them. Fiji is not a country whose people will risk getting fired upon by those who wield power from the barrel of a gun, and especially not when erstwhile leaders and agitators for such protest have been prominent by their absence these past eight years.
The youth of Fiji today is much like the youth of Fiji’s yesteryear. Each generation must choose how it wishes to navigate the tensions between culture and tradition on one hand, and democracy and equality on the other: for many, the navigation is that between dialectical realities, not between stark dichotomies. Within hierarchy, there exists competitive equality, a possibility for new hierarchies to be made and possibly re-made. Indeed, if there is one lesson to learn from Fiji, it is that things are always transforming, always in a process of becoming, without ever quite arriving.
Daniel Urai, a former Fiji Trades Union Congress leader, once told me that his dream was for every child in Fiji to go to sleep at night knowing he or she might one day lead their country. This may not be written into Fiji’s future, but for now, for this month, on 17th September, the youth of the country have the power to decide however temporarily whose nation it is, anyway.

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