- Melanesia in Review: Issues and Events, 2013Fiji
Papua New Guinea is not reviewed in this issue.
The adoption of a new constitution figured centrally in 2013, as Fiji geared up for elections scheduled before the end of September 2014. Seven years on from the December 2006 coup, many in Fiji had become habituated to life under the military commander Voreqe Frank Bainimarama. Formerly prominent politicians hoped to make a comeback at the 2014 polls and often prepared for this by reviving old alignments. There was no sign throughout the year of the coup leader’s own much-anticipated political party. Economic recovery continued, but many investors held off, awaiting the outcome of the election. Bainimarama’s anti-Australian Pacific diplomacy figured prominently, but the stomach for continued squabbles with Fiji’s government was steadily waning in Canberra. In September, an election in Australia ended the Rudd-Gillard Labor Government and brought to office the LiberalNational Coalition under Tony Abbott with Julie Bishop as foreign minister committed to “normalizing” relations with Fiji.
The year commenced with the ditching and attempted suppression of the interim government’s own Fiji Constitutional Commission (fcc) report, the shredded proofs of which were burned by police officers in the presence of a visibly distraught commission chair, Professor Yash Ghai (see Fraenkel 2013). Although the six hundred copies were impounded, the document was soon leaked and freely available on the Internet (fcc 2012). In January, President Ratu Epeli Nailatikau denounced the fcc draft as threatening “financial and economic catastrophe and ruin” (Nailatikau 2013). The commission, he said, had “succumbed to the whims of the few who have an interest in perpetuating divisions within our society.” These were bizarre claims, inspired by the regime’s discomfort with the ground-swell of popular political engagement occasioned by the fcc’s deliberations.
The fcc had accommodated all of Bainimarama’s “nonnegotiable” demands, even endorsing—at least for those swearing an oath of allegiance—the far-reaching immunity provisions in its enabling decrees not only for perpetrators of the 2006 coup but also for those responsible for the 1987 and 2000 coups (fcc 2012, schedule 6, section 27; Fiji Government 2012a, 2012b; Fiji Government 1990, chapter 14). Its core fault was that it had offered a political settlement that was palatable to those still, more or less publicly, opposed to the regime. This was an affront to a government that was depicting its origins as a glorious social revolution rather than as a military coup aimed at ousting Bainima-rama’s archenemy, the former Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase. The military commander’s close ally, Land Force Commander Colonel Mosese Tikoitoga, accused Ghai of “falling in with [End Page 476] the wrong crowd,” claimed that the law professor’s attempts to distribute the fcc draft were illegal, and said that the Ghai constitution would have entailed a catastrophic return to the pre-coup order (Fiji Sun, 5 Jan 2013). For Tikoitoga, who was to become Fiji’s new military commander in early 2014, it was the army’s nation-saving experience on United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions that was the inspiration for what he saw as its heroic role within Fiji (The Australian, 2 April 2013), and nothing could be allowed to turn back the clock.
One of the locally based constitutional commissioners, women’s rights activist Peni Moore—once an enthusiast for the Bainimarama reform project (see McGeough 2009)—expressed bewilderment at the rejection of the fcc report (Fiji Times, 22 Jan 2013). Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khai-yum said that “it would be highly discourteous for anyone to comment on or preempt the statement made by his excellency to the people of Fiji” (Fiji Times, 22 Jan 2013). President Nailatikau had reserved particular opprobrium for Ghai’s plans for a 144-member National People’s Assembly (including civil society appointees and representatives from the Great Council of Chiefs and tasked with initiating a national dialogue and electing the head of state), which he described as “anathema to democratic representation.” He also disliked provisions for a “transitional cabinet,” which he claimed would empower “corrupt” and often “incompetent” civil servants (Nailatikau 2013). Like his predecessor Ratu Josefa Iloilo...