Fiji’s military regime, headed by Commodore Frank Bainimarama, shows few signs of offering political stability at a time when the global financial crisis threatens the country’s waning economy. As Australia and the international community put increasing pressure on the Fijian government to restore democracy, experts say the majority of Fijians will be increasingly affected as the situation deteriorates.
“Out in rural Fiji, which is about 90 per cent of Fiji, people aren’t that caught up in this power struggle between competing elites in Suva,” asserts Dr. Max Quanchi, professor of Pacific Island History at the Queensland University of Technology. “In the end, the economic downturn that will result from this latest turmoil is going to affect the Fijian economy. There will be a domino effect out to rural villages.”
With tight media censorship in place throughout Fiji, outsiders can only speculate on the motives of PM Bainimarama, who came to power following a 2006 military coup that ousted former PM Laisenia Quarase.
Bainimarama has publicly stated that his government intends to reduce corruption and reform the voting system. He has set a date of 2014 for the next democratic elections but there are signs his present form of governance will create its own problems.
“Considering the recent events, now that there are all sorts of clamp downs on the media, as well as the abrogation of the constitution … All this is starting to look like a pure dictatorship,” observed Dr. Quanchi.
“There are already signs of struggle within the military leadership over positions of power. Being a friend to Bainimarama, getting him to appoint you in a position, is very valuable because of the money that goes along with it. There’s going to be competition.”
Political instability comes at a critical time for Fiji. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) told Radio Australia that Pacific Islands are projected to experience a downturn through 2011. Fiji is predicted to be one of the nations most affected by the economic crisis as it hits the region. The ADB has recommended swift action to reduce the effects of the global financial crisis on Pacific economies.
There is also speculation that the United Nations, under pressure from Australian PM Kevin Rudd, may discontinue their employment of Fijian peacekeepers, who contribute millions of dollars in remittances to military families in Fiji. The Pacific Islands Forum, which will meet this August in Cairns, has suspended Fiji until an election date is called.
Australia’s influence in the region will play a critical role in Fiji’s economic future. “We give a lot of aid to Fiji, we engage with Fiji on a wide range of things from banking to labour to international conventions. We also have a lot of tourists who go there and pour a lot of money into the Fiji economy. We are in a sense a neighbour to Fiji,” explained Dr. Quanchi.
Bainimarama is showing few signs of calling on Australia or the Pacific Islands Forum for advice. With sanctions from countries like Australia, the U.S., and possibly Britain placing additional pressure on the economy, experts say Fiji will be looking to other sources to provide economic aid.
Following the 2006 coup, China’s contributions to Fiji increased from $US1million in 2005 to $US167 million in grant and loan pledges in 2007. Concerns have been raised that China’s contribution significantly reduces the impact of the international community’s economic pressure to restore democracy in Fiji.
International sanctions on the nation, however, are unlikely to decrease, as Mr Rudd maintains that Australia’s position will remain hardline.
“You cannot sustain within a family of democracies within the Pacific Island Forum or a family of democracies within the Commonwealth, a Government like that of Fiji which simply treats with contempt the most fundamental democratic institutions and press freedoms of its people,” Mr Rudd said.