FIJI’S ILLUSIVE DEMOCRACY: PARADOXES, DILEMMAS AND HOPES
As Fiji moves back toward a democratic form of government, a leading Fijian academic examines why a country that seemed to be a model stable multicultural society has suffered two and half decades of coups and military governments, and whether its next democratic renewal will be more successful than past attempts.
Dr Steven Ratuva, in Auckland. Dr Ratuva, a Fijian, is a Senior Lecturer in Pacific Studies at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. He is also the President of the Pacific Islands Political Studies Association. Dr Ratuva has been part of international research teams on ethnic conflict, inequality, territorial disputes and armed conflict. He has been an international expert advisor and consultant on development, governance and security for a number of international organizations and an advisor for the United Nations Committee on Decolonization and the UN Department of Political Affairs.
The current constitutional reform process in Fiji and the optimism for re-democratization in the wake of the 2006 military coup needs to be understood in a broader historical, socio-economic and political context.
The colonial legacy After 96 years of British colonial rule, Fiji became independent in 1970 and for the next 13 years enjoyed peace and prosperity which was the envy of many post-colonial states. When Pope John Paul II visited in 1986 at the prime of Fiji’s democratic grandeur, he made the declaration that all countries in the world should emulate Fiji’s exemplary experience as a multicultural, tolerant and peaceful country. However, he spoke a year too
soon because in May 1987 the first of a series of coups took place. It was the result of years of shimmering tension in a country where the relationship between the two major ethnic groups, the indigenous Fijians (i-Taukei) and Indo-Fijians, was characterized by a complex interplay between zero-sum competition over political power (if one gains, another loses), ethnic entrepreneurship by ethnic elites, socio-economic
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mix of ethnicity, struggle for political power, economic inequality and resource competition led to a series of coups. It is generally understood that Fiji
Dr Steven Ratuva
inequality and manipulation of socio- cultural differences. About 57 per cent of the
population of 850,000 is composed of indigenous Fijians, 37 per cent Indo-Fijians and six per cent belong to other minorities such as Europeans, Chinese, Pacific Islanders and people of mixed background. The Indo-Fijians were brought
to Fiji by the British to provide labour for the burgeoning sugar plantations between 1879 and 1920. Ethnic differences on their own were not the reason for the tension but rather how these differences were manipulated by ethnic elites as a basis for open competition for political power and control over resources. The volatile
has had four coups: two in 1987, one in 2000 and one in 2006. I argue that there were two in 1987, two in 2000 (one by George Speight and other nationalists and another by the military when it removed the President), one in 2006 and another one in 2009 when the military re-imposed power after the Supreme Court declared the 2006 coup illegal.
The politics of ethnicity A number of factors helped to spawn antagonistic ethno-politics during the colonial period which continued even after independence. These included the British “protectionist” policy which kept indigenous Fijians within the subsistence enclave under the tutelage of chiefs and the monarch, the racially-based structure of the colonial division of labour based on Indian labour, Fijian land and European capital and the separate system of political representation. The separate administration for
indigenous Fijians impeded their social mobility at a time when other