How to respond to the impasse in Fiji?

Fiji’s coup leader-turned Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama may star on the international stage, where many diplomats take at face value his reformist claims, but his fortunes are more troubled at home.

Overseas, he has become chair of the Group of 77, a UN gathering of developing countries, and he heads the London-based International Sugar Organization.

Last week, Fiji hosted the inaugural meeting of the Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF), a new organization separate from the longstanding Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), in which Australia and New Zealand are powerful members but from which Fiji was expelled in 2009.

At the Nadi PIDF summit, Mr Bainimarama — who doubles as commander of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces — criticized the PIF on account of its ‘army of overpaid officials’ and ‘top down solutions’. He described his new rival Suva-based organization as the ‘antithesis of most bureaucracies’.

Over the past eighteen months, Fiji has established embassies in United Arab Emirates, South Africa, South Korea, Brazil, and Indonesia, and courted diplomats from Russia, Georgia and most importantly China and India.

Bainimarama’s newfound success in the international arena stands in stark contrast to his performance a few years ago, when the region’s states unanimously condemned his December 2006 coup.

In 2008, Bainimarama was widely criticized for breaching a promise of elections. Despite that setback, not only Australia and New Zealand, but also the European Union, sought to keep the channels open hoping that public emergency regulations would be lifted and for a credible roadmap towards elections.

Instead, when the courts ruled Bainimarama’s government illegal in April 2009, he chose to ditch the constitution. Ever since, Fiji has been ruled by decree. Media censorship has been imposed, and the Bainimarama government has gradually silenced its opponents.

In the build up to Australia’s September election, shadow foreign minister Julie Bishop has promised to ‘rebuild the bridges’ and ‘normalise relations’. Her ‘pledge’ of support ‘in whatever form Fiji requires’ was saluted by Gerald McGhie, writing in the Dominion Post (6/8) as entailing a welcome break from the policies of Kevin Rudd, described as the ‘poster boy for a hardline approach to Fiji since the coup in 2006’.

Yet it was Bishop’s Liberal Party that was in office when Bainimarama seized power in 2006. It was then Prime Minister John Howard who initiated the so-called ‘hardline’ policy towards Fiji. And a strange sort of ‘hardline’ policy it was; for it included neither trade sanctions nor severe cuts in aid. And it was accompanied by a large boom in Australian tourists visiting Fiji, which kept this Pacific state afloat over the years since the coup despite the collapse of the once critical sugar industry.

Much of the contemporary discussion about foreign policy towards Fiji pays no attention to major policy shifts over the last few years. In 2011, the Australian government announced a doubling of its aid towards Fiji (from A$18.6 million in 2011-12 up to A$36 million by 2013-14 or A$56 million including aid via multilateral organizations). In 2012, Kevin Rudd dropped objections to Fiji troops serving on UN peacekeeping missions, paving the way for a new deployment to the Golan Heights. Travel bans have also been steadily eased, both by Canberra and Wellington.

Julie Bishop’s 29 July speech might be depicted as a dramatic breakthrough in some quarters, but in fact it entailed little new: there may have been a ‘pledge’ to be ‘guided by the Fijian government’ as regards aid policy, but this is nevertheless (as with the Rudd government) intended as assistance ‘on the path to parliamentary democracy and constitutional law and rule’.

Despite the concessions, the Fiji interim government has refused the appointment of new high commissioners, either from Australia or New Zealand. Diplomats unfamiliar with the situation inside Fiji are quietly baffled: the normal Queensbury rules of give and take in international diplomacy seem to have been breached. Antipodean diplomats and think tanks keep proposing various shifts in policy settings in the hope of some reciprocal concessions, but find themselves instead repeatedly rebuffed by the recalcitrant military leader.

For several years now, Bainimarama has sought to strengthen his domestic and regional position by taking a belligerent attitude towards the region’s bigger powers. Bainimarama has galvanized political support through anti-Australianism, and so cannot reciprocate any toning down of former hostilities (as Ms Bishop will perhaps soon also find).

For that reason, not only will a policy of easing pressure on Bainimarama fail. So too would efforts to crank up the pressure, and ‘put the heat on’ Bainimarama (as the Wellington-based Dominion-Post wrongly headlined a shorter version of this article). Such approaches, at this stage, would only assist Bainimarama’s domestic and regional political consolidation.

While starved of legitimacy at home, Bainimarama enjoys being able to strut on the international stage as the plucky Pacific Islands strong man willing to stand up to the region’s bigger powers. Neighbouring countries like Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu have shown sympathy for Bainimarama’s use of the Melanesian Spearhead Group as a platform to criticize Australian heavy-handedness.

Bainimarama’s success at courting international allies also stands in sharp contrast to his poor ability to sustain coalitions on the domestic front. At home, his cabinet consists of several military officers, a few tired veterans of the 1987 coup, and hyperactive Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, who has no electoral base. Many of those political leaders who originally rallied to Bainimarama have fallen by the wayside, and are now nursing their wounds ahead of the scheduled 2014 elections.

While Bainimarama grandstands on the international stage — where many diplomats take at face value his claims about reform, anti-corruption and tackling long-run ethnic frictions — he shows little sign of having the acumen to deal with the protracted constitutional crisis he has inflicted upon Fiji.

Only in December, he ditched the report of a constitutional review commission that his own government had appointed. The reason was that the commission had prepared a draft that would have entailed the interim government surrendering power ahead of the next elections. Instead, Mr Sayed-Khaiyum produced a new draft that allows the government to remain in office up to the first sitting of the new parliament.

Much of the foreign policy discourse treats bilateral relations as if these were the key driver of developments within Fiji. In fact, foreign policy issues play a poor second fiddle to the domestic impasse. And here, there are good reasons to be worried. There is no sign of Bainimarama being ready or able to forge the political party that he needs to contest the election promised for 2014 (which he clearly expects to win). Nor is there much sign that he is willing to concede defeat should the result go against him. When the court ruling went against him in 2009, Bainimarama lost no time before destroying the old legal order.

In such a context, there is little to be gained by resurrecting a game of reciprocal diplomatic concessions in the hope of short-run gains for New Zealand (such as Gerald McGhie’s hoped-for vote for a New Zealand seat on the UN Security Council).

Far better to take the longer-run view, watch progress carefully on the domestic front, and keep up pressure against harassment of Fiji’s opposition parties, trades unions, and civil society activists. Above all, the focus should be on ensuring that the next elections enable the people of Fiji to regain the right — denied to them over the past seven years — to select their own government.

Jon Fraenkel is a Professor of Comparative Politics at Victoria University of Wellington. He was co-editor of From Election to Coup in Fiji; The 2006 campaign and its Aftermath (2007) and The 2006 Military takeover in Fiji: A Coup to End all Coups? (2009).

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Jon Fraenkel

Jon Fraenkel is a Professor in Comparative Politics at Victoria University of Wellington. He has written extensively on party strengthening reforms in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.


  • If I may weigh in somewhat less belligerently, I’d also like to question your assertion that the military government is starved of legitimacy at home. If you mean that he has not found, or founded, a party to contest a putative election, then I suspect you are correct, although alternative explanations might be over-confidence or just bad planning. I question your assertion that Attorney-General Sayed-Khaiyum has no electoral base and ask how sure you are that he would not win a seat in an election. Also, what does it matter for their legitimacy if the governments other officials are military officers or were part of the events of 1987?

    Secondly, how do you account for the conclusion from the Lowy Institute’s 2011 research report ‘Fiji at Home and in the World: Public opinion and foreign policy’ that there is a strong measure of domestic support for the government in Fiji? For all that the people may be receiving a distorted view from the censored media and the never-ending supply of good-news stories in the Sun, or afraid to voice their true opinion, it seems a little simplistic to ignore this inconvenient evidence. It also concords with my (albeit highly unscientific) conclusion after three weeks just spent in Suva, Ovalau and Taveuni where I found a fairly consistent opinion that went along the lines of ‘We don’t much care for how Bainimarama is going about it but we like what he is doing and we definitely prefer him to the previous government.’

    All that aside, I concur with your opinion about what Australia should do now, though perhaps for slightly different reasons. One way that the Fiji government has been so successful on the international stage has been by appealing to anti-imperialist sentiment, with Australia cast in the role of empire. Australia, and by now New Zealand, have run down their reserves of good will among both the people and the elite in Fiji and across Melanesia. By pretending to oversee Fiji’s return to democracy, Australia has in fact bolstered rather than undermined the interim government. It is time to adopt a position clearly defined by human rights principles, rather than by some claim to regional leadership. Travel bans should be applied only to those who are implicated in human rights abuses, and condemnation be strictly guided by universal principles rather than represent the actions of a self-appointed judge and jury.

    While Julie Bishop is presently in thrall to the Australia-Fiji business community, who strongly advocate normalisation of relations, it will be interesting to see what line she takes if she becomes foreign minister and is confronted by the full complexity of dealing with Australia’s relationships with Fiji and the wider Pacific island region.

    • Thanks Jonathan.

      It’s a relief to respond to a less belligerent post. And good also to have issues raised that are not based on wild conjecture, but are susceptible to clear evidence or analysis: you can get answers to both of your key questions just by looking at the antics of the government itself.

      There’s no question that the Bainimarama government lacks legitimacy, …. and knows it. After all, it has always claimed to be following a roadmap towards elections, and thus itself sees elections as the route to ‘legitimacy’. That’s always been the odd thing about Fiji since 2006: these are the anti-coup coup-makers, the insurrectionists who describe their own coup as a ‘coup to end all coups’.

      If by ‘legitimacy’ you mean popular support, no one is really sure about the extent of backing for the Bainimarama-led government, though there are many extravagant claimants of certainty on both sides. The Bainimarama government hasn’t itself bothered to test the water, for e.g. through municipal council elections. No one is sure which ordinary person-on-the-street statements can be accepted at face value, particularly since the 2009 clampdown. The Fijian expression ‘liu muri’ (dishonest/deceptive/ backstabber) has become widely used. What was once an open and frank society (no pun intended), at least compared to the rest of Melanesia, has become much less easy to read. As to the Lowy poll carried out by market research company Tebbutt Research, I’ve published what I think of that here [copied below]. For my own part, I reckon Bainimarama has accumulated considerable personal support, and a great deal of pragmatic acquiescence, but – whatever the truth – that Lowy poll was scandalously shoddily conducted and conceived, and the Lowy Institute has never bothered to respond to those widely aired criticisms.

      Second, you question my claim that Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum has no electoral base, but this is a statement of fact not conjecture. He did – I believe – have some loose links with Ratu Epeli Ganilau’s National Alliance Party of Fiji, a party which obtained only 2.9% of the national vote in 2006. Ratu Epeli did join Bainimarama’s cabinet after the coup, but – like many of the military commander’s allies – has since fallen by the wayside. And why do you think that the government’s draft constitution made more explicit (than did the 1997 constitution) the scope for appointing a non-elected person as Attorney-General? [(s.95(3)-(4)]. That was hardly an expression of confidence in Mr Sayed-Khaiyum’s ability to secure election. Not only does the A-G have no popular base, he also faces considerable hostility within the upper echelons of the regime itself.
      They key point I was trying to make in that blog post was to get us away from the ridiculous hard/soft policy debate which dominates discussion about Australian/New Zealand foreign policy towards Fiji – and to think rather in terms of a longer- rather than shorter-term outlook. The fixation with Fiji’s overseas relations, which seems to unite both supporters and many critics of the Fiji interim government, is often an alternative to saying anything at all – let alone anything sensible – about the domestic situation.

      Excerpt from Review of Fiji 2011 on The Lowy Fiji Poll:

      At the Auckland PIF meeting, the Lowy Institute released an opinion poll conducted within Fiji by market research firm Tebbutt Research and funded by Fiji-born businessman Mark Johnson (Hayward-Jones 2011). This was based on interviews with 1,032 adults in urban areas of Fiji’s largest island, Viti Levu, in August 2011. It found that Bainimarama had a 66 percent approval rating and was used to reinforce pressure both from the Lowy Institute and the ANZ Bank for a policy switch toward Fiji. The poll was much criticized by civil society activists within Fiji, who pointed to the prevailing climate of fear and intimidation and asked how Tebbutt had gained permission to carry out its poll (ABC Pacific Beat, 7 Sept 2011). Former Fiji Times editor Russell Hunter had been responsible for commissioning occasional opinion polls from Tebbutt Research until he was deported by Bainimarama in 2008. He said that, “When the Tebbutt-Times poll was still operating, Caz [Tebbutt] several times declined to conduct a poll on contentious issues, fearing that the powers that be would shoot the messenger” (Lal and Hunter 2011). Standard practice for polling organizations is to initially conduct pilot surveys, so Tebbutt would have known the likely findings before carrying out the poll.

      Others criticized the poll on the grounds that the sample was too small and pointed to the urban bias, claiming that opposition to Bainimarama would have been stronger in rural Fiji (Narsey 2011). Yet, internationally, approval ratings surveys are regularly conducted with similarly small samples, and there was no good reason to think that the opposition would be weaker in urban Fiji. There were stronger reasons for questioning the Tebbutt methodology. A Fiji Times-Tebbutt survey conducted in February 2009 had asked respondents the open-ended question as to whom they preferred as prime minister: 31 percent had favored deposed Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, and 27 percent Bainimarama (see Fraenkel 2010). The 2011 poll asked instead a highly loaded question: “How good a job do you personally think Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama is doing as Prime Minister?” Not only was the full military title used, but the more normal polling formulation would have been to ask “how good or bad” a job Bainimarama was doing. That the survey designers were possibly aware of this unbalanced phrasing was suggested by another question, which did use the positive and negative options: “Do you think Fiji is moving in the right or wrong direction?” To this question, 65 percent of respondents responded “the right direction,” but the exact meaning of “right” or “wrong” in this context was highly uncertain. Even coup critics might reasonably hope that Fiji was moving in the right direction. The Tebbutt poll was used brazenly by the Fiji government to blow its trumpet throughout the rest of 2011, with the Ministry of Information’s Sharon Smith-Johns crowing that Bainimarama was “almost three times more popular with the people of Fiji than the Prime Minister Gillard is with the people of Australia” (Fiji Government 2011).

      More broadly, approval ratings may be reasonably indicative of shifts in popular sentiment in the mass industrial democracies, but they are of questionable value in a country like Fiji, particularly in a climate of severe censorship and intimidation.

    • Jonathan, i concur with Jon Fraenkel’s analysis here. As a Fijian, i think he has hit the nail on the head when he describes how the coup leader Bainimarama & his side kick Khaiyum wants to legitimate their actions and/or inaction.

      I quote, “Bainimarama’s success at courting international allies also stands in sharp contrast to his poor ability to sustain coalitions on the domestic front…” unquote. This is so evident with the ongoing socio-political issues being faced by Fiji citizens in Fiji. Fiji Islander diasporas return from Motherland and all are saying the same thing “Fiji is not the same. Theres no more trust amongst people. Even family members are scared to share their innermost concerns of what Bainimarama is doing in Fiji.” The list of stories are endless. Bainimarama has done more damage then good. Thats a fact. Infrastructure, health, education and increase in poverty, joblessness, nepotism etc etc is rife in Fiji.

      For Jonathan Shultz to claim he returned from the Island of Taveuni where everyone says Bainimarama is doing good, yeah right! Taveuni is my home Island and all Bainimarama is doing is to ensure he gets the vote when elections comes. He runs a repressive regime and i can vouch not all people in Taveuni really likes what Bainimarama is doing. The only reason he is going there is because two of his right hand men are from there and ho are both in the Fiji Police Force, one is the current incumbent as Head of Fiji’s Police.

      Bainimarama & Khaiyum with their recent pustch for ‘Fiji 2013 Bai-Khai Constitution’ signed off on 6 Septemeber 2013 are really just protecting their patch. No more no less.

      • Thank you Samanunu, and thank you too Jon for the chance to have a calm discussion.

        Samanunu, I think you exaggerate what I was claiming. I certainly met people who spoke against the military government and especially the abolition of the GCC. I was simply paraphrasing a position that I heard more often. That doesn’t mean that I take it at face value – there are certainly explanations other than that people genuinely do think that the military government is doing good.

        I wonder if I could ask you a question – what do you think the chances are of Bainimarama succeeding in ensuring that he gets the vote when the election comes (to use your words)?

        • Jonathan S thank you for your comments. You are entitled to your views, no doubt, the beauty of living in a democratic ‘free space’ which is so absent in Fiji.

          Note, whatever has been said in your discussions with people in Taveuni are said, to perhaps, just please you in the event you pen-it/click your key board as you have just done here.

          Interestingly, i just noted there’s “#” sign against your name which links to Fiji Govt.Election link. Does that mean anything to you?

          I am curious to know the type of people you spoke with i.e racial background etc. Remember, Fijians i.e Indigenous & Ethnic Indians have two views when it comes to issues as such let alone others.

          Fijians [Indigenous] are known to say ‘yes’ to everything a visitor asks more so if you represent power & authority, when in reality they mean ‘No’. That bit you don’t know and perhaps you need to rethink your conversations and the current situation in Fiji. It is under an un-elected military government.

          As for your question on election and how Bainimarama will perform, that’s another long story. But in short, he is the current dictator in Fiji if you have not figured that one out.

          Electronic voting is being planned. Strict ID is required to register.Rural Fijians and citizens living in highlands and outer islands may not carry any form of id.

          Approx 533,553 citizens have registered to date. Bainimarama is now challenging all that he is focused on this group of registered voters. What happens to the rest of approx 367,447 that have not registered. Those from Rural Villages and Rural small scale farmers i.e sugar cane etc who may not have any form of id, what happens to their votes?

          Electronic Voting is said to take place only in a day with no ballot paper or if there is there will only be a large one with 100 or more would-be politicians listed. Some questions;

          1. Who will be behind these electronic gadgets?
          2. Who are the IT personnel overseeing these or engineering the whole process?
          3. How authentic will the results be if these so called IT expert do not tamper with votes?
          4. Or will Bainimarama be transparent enough and give out in gory details those monitoring the machines behind the scenes?

          These are the details that looks dodgy and given the current repressive and dodgy manner/process, the results looks very likely to be doomed and may very well favour your hero, the Island-coconut-dictator.

          • Thanks for your constructive comments Samanunu but no thanks for your personal attacks.

            First, the ‘#’ does not link to any Fiji government website but to my own comment on this blog. Go on, check it. I don’t know where you got that one from, but it does you no credit to associate me with the Fiji government.

            Similarly your claim about ‘[my] hero, the Island-coconut dictator’. Complete nonsense.

            Unlike you, Samanunu, I am posting here under my real name, which you may google and discover who I am. Maybe you would like to reveal a bit more about who you are, on top of what one can guess from your choice of name on this blog.

            If you would like to debate the facts then let us continue, but if you continue to make irrelevant and inaccurate personal attacks then this will be my final post.

          • Jonathan Shultz,
            There is no personal attack on you meant meant in my response. My comments are purely to debunk a) your argument that Prof. Jon Fraenkel had been somewhat incorrect in some of his analysis of the Fiji situation and b) your comment that there appears to be a ‘consistent’ acceptance or something similar to how Bainimarama is going about his reforms in Fiji.

            I quote your comments “after three weeks just spent in Suva, Ovalau and Taveuni where I found a fairly consistent opinion that went along the lines of ‘We don’t much care for how Bainimarama is going about it but we like what he is doing and we definitely prefer him to the previous government.’”. To this end, I disagree with you for the reasons outlined already.

            Lastly, you ask for my full name. I had opted not to give it but it meant that this forum will not publish my comments as I had replied last night and they have not appeared. So here it is with my full name which may mean nothing to you or others reading my comments.

  • Jon has written an excellent and well thought out article.

    Tom’s sweeping statement that there has been no Arab Spring in Fiji highlights his superficial understanding of the issue. First of all silence does not mean concurrence in fact quite the opposite. Secondly, it took the Arabs decades to mobilise the people for the Arab Spring, far longer than Fiji has had its crisis.
    He would do well to put down the tv remote after turning off CNN, and picking a few books on history instead.
    The tree of liberty must be watered from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants alike…

  • I find the opinions of Jon Frankel to be rehashing a lagging perspective that is laced with half-truths and turgid talking points, as if they were generated from Canberra and Wellington: “While starved of legitimacy at home, Bainimarama enjoys being able to strut on the international stage as the plucky Pacific Islands strong man willing to stand up to the region’s bigger powers. Neighbouring countries like Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu have shown sympathy for Bainimarama’s use of the Melanesian Spearhead Group as a platform to criticize Australian heavy-handedness.”

    There is no evidence to support the Frankel’s claim of Bainimarama being starved of legitimacy at home — if there were any there would be Arab-spring like protests erupting in Suva. If Bainimarama’s attendance to numerous UN events like chairing the G77 et al. is considered ‘strutting the international stage’, in Frankel’s eyes; then Bainimarama would be guilty as charged.

    Yes, Bainimarama is standing up to Australia and New Zealand but he is only voicing what Fiji has experienced and what many island nations have been too timid to do.

    Courage is contagious, as the saying goes, and Fiji’s assertiveness is rubbing off with more island countries and their leaders are slowly voicing their dissatisfaction with the neo-colonial type of relationships experienced heretofore, with Australia and New Zealand. Tonga’s response to New Zealand withdrawing its Tourism Aid over a new plane donated by China, as reported by Islands Business, is a case in point.

    Other events, like the revelations by Edward Snowden, on Australia and New Zealand’s hand in the NSA/Prism wiretapping and internet surveillance have raised some concerning eye brows in the Pacific. Other corroborating sources, have pointed out that, this same NSA surveillance, is being used to spy on the South Pacific island leaders and the activities within the Pacific island Forum nations.

    There is a looming crisis of confidence in the South Pacific and it was not brought about by actions of Frank Bainimarama, but is the culminated blow-back, a karmic reaction from the very actions of some of our so called, anitpodean ‘friends’.

    • Tom Brady dislikes my ‘lagging perspective’ (whatever that means!), which he condemns as generated from Canberra or Wellington. Presumably, by this he means that his own views are more authentically Pacific. But they are not, as he indicates immediately by saying that there is no ‘crisis of legitimacy’ within Fiji and that if there were such a crisis there would be ‘Arab-spring type protests erupting in Suva’. Someone who knows Fiji better would be aware of the well-known saying that ‘silence is not consent’.

      • @Jon Frankel
        “Lagging perspective”, in this context of my comments, means constant rehashing the events of the past and passing it off as current events; analogous to ‘old wine in new bottles’.

        As for your opinion about Fiji’s Prime Minister being “starved of legitimacy at home”-unfortunately you have not supported your claims and I stand by my comments that highlighted this fact.
        “Silence may not mean consent” was probably a poor attempt to explain away the lack of protests in Suva.

        With regards to who ‘knows Fiji better’, is basically a moot point and borders on the presumption that someone claims to be the absolute authority on Fiji.

        • Frank’s strutting about on the world stage is precisely an attempt to create legitimacy at home. Its a PR slight of hand, keep up the diatribe and there will not be space to consider that he was not mandated to speak on behalf of the people of Fiji. The regime has its fingers around the throat of the media, controls the judiciary and rewards state brutality. Silence does not mean consent and I guarantee you that it is on the minds of most Fijian’s and on the minds of the regime as well.

          If his strategy is to say look at all I have done for you people, I have stood up to the Aussies and the Kiwi’s, fixed all the water pipes in your village and listened to your concerns, now vote for me even though I wont tell you how much I or Aiyaz earns, or how much of your pension fund is gone, or how the economy is really doing…doesn’t that qualify as a hail Mary pass from the your own 10 yard line Tom Brady?

          Fiji is much more than Bainimarama and Aiyaz. Their entire international and domestic policy stance is reactive.

          In Hindsight, Qarase had the chance to put an end to end this cycle of coups by prosecuting all the perpetrators behind the 2001 coup and more importantly, the shadowy figures behind the attempt to assassinate Frank Bainimarama during the assault on the military camp by the rouge CRW soldiers.

          Sadly he did not, instead he created the most bloated government Fiji has ever seen, ministers on salary without any portfolio, reduced sentences of Fijian aristocrats guilty of coup related charges and then employing them as ministers in his government all the while trying to gain control of Bainimarama and the Fiji military which was then and still is a deeply fractured and traumatized institution.

          The die was cast a long time ago.

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