- Melanesia in Review:Issues and Events, 2014
New Caledonia and Papua are not reviewed in this issue.
The first nine months of 2014 in Fiji were dominated by preparations for the long-awaited 17 September election. In accordance with the “Strategic Framework for Change” set out in July 2009, a new constitution had been put in place in 2013 (see Fraenkel 2014), but the associated electoral arrangements were finalized only in March 2014. In the same month, Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama stepped down as military commander and announced the formation of his new political party, FijiFirst. Also in March, Rewa high chief Ro Teimumu Kepa became leader of the main Opposition party, the Social Democratic and Liberal Party (sodelpa, formerly the Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua [sdl]). Initial polls released by the Fiji Sun’s Razor Research gave Bainimarama a commanding 79 percent lead and suggested negligible support for sodelpa (Fiji Sun, 2 March 2014), but these were widely considered untrustworthy. As the polling day drew closer, a Times-Tebbutt poll found 21 percent support for sodelpa and 45 percent for FijiFirst, implying that the gap was narrowing and encouraging expectations of a preelection surge in support for the Opposition (Fiji Times, 6 Sept 2014).
In the heated atmosphere of early September, Bainimarama expressed reservations about holding an election at all, accused sodelpa of exacerbating ethnic divisions and of planning to release 2000 coup leader George Speight, and said that Suva would not be allowed to “burn” again (rnzi, 4 Sept 2014; Fiji Sun, 4 Sept 2014; fbc, 11 Sept 2014). Heroic interpretations of the military’s response to the Speight coup of May 2000 had long been used to consolidate rank-and-file control in the army (see Bainimarama 2014a). Now, in the context of the election campaign, these were used to remind the minority communities about the risk of instability in the event of a poor showing for FijiFirst.
If the early September poll was correct, voter loyalties polarized in the weeks before the polls, with the smaller parties losing support. The final outcome gave FijiFirst 59.2 percent of the national vote and 32 of the 50 parliamentary seats, a landslide victory. sodelpa had 15 seats and 28.2 percent of the national vote. The only other party to cross the 5 percent threshold was the National Federation Party (nfp), which obtained the remaining 3 seats. The Fiji Labour Party (flp), which had obtained 39.2 percent of the national vote in 2006, slumped to 2.4 percent. The People’s Democratic Party (pdp)—a breakaway from the flp—fared only slightly better, with 3.2 percent. Predictably, given the high threshold, the two independents obtained few votes.
Owing to Fiji’s history of election-triggered coups, fears of military intervention [End Page 508] inevitably lurked in the background during the 2014 campaign, or at least they did so as long as the result was uncertain. Bainimarama’s replacement as military commander, former Land Force Commander Brigadier Mosese Tikoitoga, said in April that the role of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces (rfmf) was to defend the new constitution and that “whatever government the people choose, we will support it.” However, he also warned that “if people throw out the current constitution as current political parties are talking about—then they have thrown out the chance of avoiding coups” (Islands Business, April 2014; rnzi, 24 June 2014; FijiLive, 21 June 2014). The desire to keep the military out of politics may have been genuine, but that commitment proved difficult to sustain, particularly for an institution as intertwined with the fabric of Fijian life as the rfmf. In July, the rfmf announced it was severing all ties with former military officer and sodelpa candidate Ratu Suliano Matanitobua after he appealed to the people of Namosi to put obligations to the vanua (indigenous system) over loyalties to the rfmf (FijiLive, 31 July 2014). Immunities for actions taken during the 2006 coup and thereafter were entrenched in the 2013 Constitution and these were as vital to the rfmf senior command as they were to the government leadership. Hence, the military top brass carefully guarded its rehabilitated...