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David Miller: Can Democracy Prevail In Fiji?

David Miller Online. Fiji: Can Democracy Prevail?.

The ruling by the Court of Appeal in Fiji last Thursday that the military backed interim government is illegal brought a chorus of cheers from pro-democracy advocates throughout the South Pacific and New Zealand. In its ruling the court said that the 1997 constitution was still valid and therefore the government installed following the George Speight led coup was not legitimate. While this decision is a step in the right direction it is also one, which could spark further violence in Fiji and is one that which in no way guarantees certainty and stability for the troubled island nation. While there has been a welcoming of the decision, this reception must be tempered with caution and a wait and see approach.

Before the real celebrating can commence there are a number of hurdles that must be overcome if the court’s ruling can be properly and successfully implemented. The first is the Great Council of Chiefs, which is due to deliver its verdict on the decision this week. Headed by former coup leader Sitivini Rabuka, the council is a powerful force in Fijian politics and society and any decision its makes will certainly have a bearing on the outcome of this process.

The second hurdle is the Fijian military. Thus far the military and the interim government it installed have both said they will abide by the court’s decision. However the level of commitment it has to such a pledge at this stage is anyone’s guess. Following the Speight coup last year, the military did not appear to be wholehearted in its support for a return to the status quo and it was the main player in establishing the government that remains in power at present.

Should the military decide that it does not agree with the court’s decision, officially or otherwise, it certainly has some leverage in stalling the process back towards democracy. Many governments and militaries around the world use the spectre of violence and instability as a pretext for extending their rule and Fiji could prove no exception. While the media has reported calm on the streets of Suva and elsewhere in the wake of the decision this could change once the process of relinquishing the control begins. Should that happen and violence flares again the military and the interim government are given the ideal excuse not to step aside.

Acting President Josepha Iloilo has stated that he his country must move forward in accordance with the law and now that law has been defined under the 1997 constitution. However he has warned that there must also be security and stability in Fiji and that the return to democracy will not be a short process. There are warning signals here for those who have championed the democratic course that nothing can be taken for granted.

The third hurdle that must be mentioned here, is the acceptance of the Court of Appeal’s ruling and the implications it has for ethnic Fijians. Mahendra Chaudhry, the man deposed in last year’s coup, has already come out and stated that his government must be reinstated. However this is unlikely to happen. The events of the past ten years have shown that it is unlikely that there will be acceptance of an Indo- Fijian assuming the Prime Minister’s post in Fiji for sometime yet and that should Fiji return to a steady footing then an ethnic Fijian would be better suited for this difficult task. This is not exactly playing by the rules of democracy and sadly it has the look of racism about it, but the unfortunate reality of the situation is that this is the only way forward for Fiji. It is doubtful that the return of the deposed Labour government, would be accepted by ethnic Fijians, and even Sir Paul Reeves who helped draft the 1997 multi racial constitution has publicly stated that he doubts Mr Chaudhry can resume his office.

The ethnic tensions that surfaced last year when George Speight led his coup have not disappeared and remain bubbling beneath the surface of Fiji’s political and social fabric. Such tensions could easily erupt into violence and it could be the pretext for not abiding by the Court of Appeal’s decision. Whichever course Fiji takes from this point onwards will be fraught with uncertainty, therefore the neatest option would be fresh elections. While supporters of Mr Chaudhry will claim that this makes his government and democracy a casualty of the situation and that it demonstrates the power of the gun, it is the way in which Fiji can be given a fresh start. Helen Clark has touted the idea of a unity government, however given the circumstances democracy must be allowed to try and start afresh.

Until the Court of Appeal’s ruling is put into practice in whatever form that may be, then the New Zealand government and other pro democracy advocates must remain cautious. It is not simply a case of what form the democratic process will take but whether it has enough strength and impetus to overcome some very serious and difficult barriers. Until then the sanctions, along with the uncertainty, will remain.

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