- Melanesia in Review:Issues and Events, 2008
Reviews of Vanuatu and West Papua are not included in this issue.
Fiji's military-backed government dug in its heels during 2008, defying pressure to hold elections. At home, interim Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama courted popular backing for a "People's Charter" and sought to restructure the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC). Externally, relations soured further with Australia and New Zealand over the breach of the commitment to hold elections by March 2009, several death threats directed at Australian High Commissioner James Batley, and the expulsion of additional journalists and diplomats. The economy fared poorly, despite the recommencement of gold mining at Vatukoula and some recovery in tourist arrivals. The inner circle around Bainimarama tightened after the Fiji Labour Party (FLP) ministers—including party leader Mahendra Chaudhry—left the cabinet. In October, a panel of three judges sitting on the high court in the Qarase v Bainimarama case ruled that post 2006 coup presidential decrees were lawful, thus legitimizing the actions of the interim government.
In January 2008, the National Council for Building a Better Fiji (NCBBF) held its first meeting. Opening the proceedings, Catholic Archbishop Petero Mataca echoed the position of his co-chair Frank Bainimarama by rejecting calls for a speedy return to the polls on the grounds that "elections alone will not bring about democracy nor guarantee stability or end all coups" (Fiji Times, 18 Jan 2008). His statement set the tone for what became the core NCBBF message—an insistence on far-reaching electoral reforms to eliminate racism recycled as justification for the regime's resisting pressure to hold fresh elections by March 2009. Invitations to join the council were refused by deposed Prime Minister Qarase's Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL) party and the Methodist Church, indicating that the majority of indigenous Fijians remained deeply opposed to the interim government's initiatives. Both of the major North Indian organizations, the Arya Samaj and the Shree Sanatan Dharm Pratinidhi Sabha, took up seats on the national council. So too did Mahendra Chaudhry's Fiji Labour Party, which had been backed by the vast majority of Fiji Indians at the elections two years previously. A small but vocal minority of Fiji Indians remained aloof; the National Federation Party refused to participate, as did the main South Indian organization, the Then India Sanmarga Ikya Sangam, and the Fiji Muslim League. In response, the regime cultivated rival South Indian and Muslim groups (for details, see Prasad 2009).
The draft People's Charter, released in August, proposed a set of core shared values including sustainable democracy, a common national identity, enlightened leadership, poverty [End Page 337] reduction, and economic development (NCBBF 2008a). Most were grand statements of principle that could have been embraced, at least rhetorically, by all of Fiji's post-independence governments, and the document was largely silent on concrete steps to be taken. A few proposals stood out. "Mainstreaming of indigenous Fijians in a modern, progressive Fiji" was to be promoted by adoption of a common name—"Fijian"—for all citizens (in contrast to the more usual everyday usage of "Fijian" to refer to the indigenous community and "Indian" to refer to those descended from migrants from the Subcontinent). Indigenous Fijians would henceforth be referred to as "i-Taukei" rather than "Fijian." That sparked a familiar debate and was predictably condemned by Qarase and the Methodist Church. In the mid-1990s reformists had encouraged usage of "Indo-Fijian" for those of Indian descent and "Fiji Islander" for all Fiji citizens. But those terms never caught on in everyday speech within Fiji, instead becoming confined largely to polite liberal and scholarly discourse. The new terminology is unlikely to acquire any greater currency.
The People's Charter included proposals for a radical overhaul of the electoral system. The complex preferential system used at the elections of 1999, 2001, and 2006 was to be dropped and replaced by an open-list, proportional-representation system, as used in Finland and Sri Lanka. Communal constituencies, in which citizens vote separately according to ethnic origins, were to be replaced by a fully common roll system, and the voting age was to...