Will Fiji’s 2022 hotly contested elections further cement democracy?

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Fiji's Parliament in Suva
Fiji's government buildings and Parliament complex ... both frontrunners in this year's election are two former military strongmen who have been involved on coups in the past - incumbent Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama and former Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka. Image: Nicholas Halter/Fijian History

ANALYSIS: By Shailendra Singh of the University of the South Pacific

In Fiji’s politically charged context, national elections are historically a risky period. Since the 2022 campaign period was declared open on April 26, the intensity has been increasing.

Moreover, with three governments toppled by coups after the 1987, 1999 and 2006 elections, concerns about a smooth transfer of power are part of the national conversation.

The frontrunners in the election, which must be held by January 2023 but is likely to be held later this year, are two former military strongmen — Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama and former Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka.

Both men have been involved in Fijian coups in the past.  Rabuka took power through the 1987 coups in the name of Indigenous self-determination. He became the elected prime minister in 1992 but lost power in 1999 after forming a coalition with a largely Indo–Fijian party.

Bainimarama staged his 2006 coup in the name of good governance, multiracialism and eradicating corruption, before restoring electoral democracy and winning elections under the FijiFirst (FF) party banner in 2014 and 2018.

FijiFirst was formed by the leaders and supporters of the 2006 coup during the transition back to democratic government via the 2014 election. Many of the FF leaders were part of the post-coup interim government that created the 2013 constitution, which delivered substantial changes to Fiji’s electoral system.

These changes included the elimination of seats reserved for specific ethnicities, replaced by a single multi-member constituency covering the whole country, and the creation of a single national electoral roll. Seat distribution is proportional, meaning each of the eight competing parties will need to get five percent of the vote to win one of the 55 seats up for grabs this year.

Popularity a key factor
As votes for a particular candidate are distributed to those lower down their parties’ ticket once they cross the five percent threshold, the popularity of single candidates can make or break a party’s electoral hopes.

For example, Bainimarama individually garnered 69 percent of FF’s total votes in 2014 and 73.81 percent in 2018, demonstrating the extent to which his party’s fortunes rest on his personal brand.

This will be crucial as FF’s majority rests on a razor thin margin, having won in 2018 with only 50.02 percent of the vote, compared to its 59.14 percent in 2014.

As for his major rival Rabuka, following his split with the major Indigenous Fijian party, Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA), he formed and now heads the People’s Alliance Party (PAP).

The split came after Rabuka lost a leadership tussle with SODELPA stalwart Viliame Gavoka. Rabuka’s departure is seen as a setback for SODELPA, given that he attracted 77,040, or 42.55 percent, of the total SODELPA votes in 2018.

When it comes to issues, the state of the economy, including cost of living and national debt, are expected to be at the top of most voters’ minds. Covid-19 brought a sudden halt to tourism — which before the pandemic made up 39 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) — putting 115,000 people out of work.

As a result, the government borrowed heavily during this period, which according to the Ministry of Economy saw the “debt-to-GDP ratio increase to over 80 percent at the end of March 2022 compared to around 48 per cent pre-pandemic”.

Poverty ‘undercounted’
The government stated that it borrowed to prevent economic collapse, while the opposition accused it of reckless spending. The World Bank put the poverty level at 24.1 percent in April 2022, but opposition politicians have claimed this is an undercount.

For example, the leader of the National Federation Party (NFP) Professor Biman Prasad has claimed the real level of unemployment is more than 50 percent.

Adding to this pressure is inflation, which reached 4.7 percent in April — up from 1.9 percent in February — and while the government blames price increases in wheat, fuel, and other staples on the war in Ukraine, the opposition attributes it to poor economic fundamentals.

Another factor which could define the election outcome was the pre-election announcement of a coalition between the PAP and NFP. By combining the two largest opposition parties, there is clearly a hope to form a viable multiethnic alternative to FF.

This strategy, however, is not without risks in the country’s complex political milieu. In the 1999 election, the coalition between Rabuka’s ruling Soqosoqo ni Vakavulewa ni Taukei Party and NFP failed when Rabuka’s 1987 coup history was highlighted during campaigning.

This saw NFP’s Fijian supporters of Indian descent desert the party.

Whether history will repeat itself is one of the intriguing questions in this election. According to some estimates, FF received 71 percent of Indo-Fijian votes in 2014, and capturing this support base is crucial for the opposition’s chances.

Transfer of power concerns
Against the background of pressing economic and social issues loom concerns about a smooth transfer of power. Besides Fiji’s coup culture, such anxieties are fuelled by a constitutional provision seen to give the military carte blanche to intervene in national politics.

Section 131(2) of the 2013 Fijian constitution states: ‘It shall be the overall responsibility of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces to ensure at all times the security, defence and well-being of Fiji and all Fijians’.

This has concerned many opposition leaders, such as NFP president Pio Tikoduadua, who has called for the country to rethink how this aspect of the constitution should be understood.

These concerns are likely to increase by the prospect of a close or hung election. As demonstrated after last year’s Samoan general election, the risk of a protracted dispute over the results could have adverse implications for a stable outcome.

As such, it is essential that all candidates immediately commit to respect the final result of the election whatever it may be and lay the foundations for a peaceful transition of power. In the longer-term interest, however, it will be necessary for Fiji to clarify the potential domestic power of the military implied by the constitution to put all undue speculation to rest. 

Dr Shailendra Singh is coordinator of the University of the South Pacific journalism programme. This article is based on a paper published by ANU Department of Pacific Affairs (DPA) as part of its “In brief” series. The original paper can be found here. It was first published at Policy Forum, Asia and the Pacific’s platform for public policy analysis and opinion. Republished with the permission of the author.

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