Understanding Fiji’s political landscape

23 December 2022
Vinil Kumar

Fiji’s prime minister, and 2006 coup leader, Frank Bainimarama has been defeated in the country’s 2022 election but has so far refused to concede.

Former PM Sitiveni Rabuka, leader of the 1987 coups, has secured an electoral majority through a coalition of Fiji’s post-independence political establishment. While Bainimarama’s loss rightfully led to celebrations in Suva, Rabuka’s victory is nothing to celebrate for Fiji’s workers, poor and the historically oppressed Indian population. This election represented Fiji’s political elite, old and new, competing to implement their rival visions for Fijian capitalism.

The impact of the pandemic, supply chain disruptions and high inflation damaged Bainimarama’s already waning popularity. According to the World Bank, 20 percent of the urban and 41 percent of the rural population lived in poverty in 2020. Tourism, responsible for a third of Fiji’s GDP and a quarter of all employment, was brough to a standstill by COVID-19. The economy contracted by 15 percent. Bainimarama’s initial border closures made him the public face of Fiji’s economic woes. The country has now suffered more than 700 deaths in a population of less than one million.

Bainimarama also arrested political rivals and persecuted journalists and unionists. The old establishment used his moves against Fiji’s hereditary chiefs to paint him as hostile to all indigenous Fijians.

While Bainimarama’s FijiFirst party still topped the 2022 polls, its vote fell to 42.5 percent, denying him the majority he won in 2014 and held onto in 2018.

FijiFirst tied with a coalition of Rabuka’s People’s Alliance and the National Federation Party. The deadlock ended when Rabuka secured support from SODELPA, the descendants of Fiji’s post-independence ruling party, from which he split after losing the party leadership.

A week after the election, Bainimarama has yet to concede and has now deployed troops to Suva, the capital. Fiji’s new parliament hasn’t convened to appoint a new prime minister because President Williame Katonivere, appointed last year, has yet to summon it.

Bainimarama’s sixteen-year rule has upended the political status quo in Fiji and the broader Pacific. Though his coup in 2006 was Fiji’s fourth, it was the first enacted against its indigenous political establishment rather than one backed by it. In the years since, Bainimarama has tried to stabilise and “modernise” Fijian capitalism by restructuring the state machinery and curbing civil liberties.

Significantly, amid rising tensions between the United States and China, he initiated closer diplomatic links with Beijing and extracted greater spending from both rival powers by playing them off against each other. With Rabuka pledging to reorient Fiji back to its traditional partners, Australia and the United States, the elections may have broader ramifications for imperialism in the Pacific.

Britain annexed Fiji in 1874, securing Australian imperialism’s control over the island group. The colonial administration and foreign capitalists allied with sections of the indigenous chiefdom to protect both colonial rule and capitalist industry. These chiefs collaborated in the suppression of clans who rebelled against colonial rule and provided a buffer between the colonial administration and ordinary Fijians.

But this situation posed other problems for a colony intended to produce cotton and sugar. Enslaving Fijians and other Pacific Islanders to meet demand for cheap plantation labour risked provoking a local rebellion.

Instead, more than 60,000 indentured Indian labourers were imported. Over decades, they grew to a majority of the population and became the core of Fiji’s urban and agricultural working class. During the early twentieth century, the militancy of Indian labour on the cane fields and in the public sector began to attract the sympathy of indigenous Fijians and the ire of the ruling class.

Racism became an increasingly important form of divide and rule. The Fijian chiefs used their traditional authority to discourage solidarity. Following the country’s first multiracial strike in 1959 (among oil workers), they convinced the Fijian employees to return to work and encouraged breakaway, racially exclusive unions. Fijian poverty was blamed on the growing number of Indians in the country—particularly small-scale farmers leasing native land, and a growing layer of merchants and business owners.

A racially divided parliament of “communal electorates” granted disproportionate weight to rural Fijian electorates, disadvantaging both the country’s Indian majority and the growing urban Fijian working class. In 1946, after Indians refused to fight in World War Two, a racist hysteria culminated in European hotelier and parliamentarian AA Ragg denouncing the “great increase in non-Fijian inhabitants” and advocating for Fiji to be “kept as a Fijian country”.

These arguments fuelled Fijian ethnic chauvinism, dressed up in the language of “indigenous rights”, including anti-Indian pogroms and calls for Indians to be expelled from the country. The “racial tensions” often presented as characteristic of Fijian society are not natural, but the conscious creations of capitalist divide and rule.

Following independence in 1970, foreign capital continued to dominate the economy while Fiji’s chiefs dominated politics. Their rule rested on three key, interconnected pillars.

First was the unelected Great Council of Chiefs, a body integrated into the Fijian state since 1876. Second was the communal electoral system. Third was the Alliance Party—the electoral vehicle of the Fijian chiefs, which also included ruling-class whites and a growing layer of moderate Indian business owners. Its base was among rural Fijians.

For decades the main party of opposition was the National Federation Party, representing the Indian middle classes with a base among both rural and urban Indians. This setup strengthened the division of Fijian politics along racial lines.

By the 1970s, workers had suffered significant defeats and some unions splintered along racial lines. The Fiji Trade Union Congress entered a tripartite agreement in 1976 with the government and employers, arguing that it would give workers greater say in the economy. But by the early 80s, workers were going backwards under increasing ruling-class attacks. The Trade Union Congress was forced to abandon the tripartite setup, but instead of proceeding with planned national strikes, its leadership around Mahendra Chaudhry oriented to parliament, founding the Fiji Labour Party in 1985.

The chiefdom’s lack of control over industry made control over parliament crucial for its weight in modern Fijian society. The Alliance lost the 1987 elections to a coalition of the Fiji Labour Party and National Federation Party. In retaliation, it backed two coups led by Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka. Rabuka justified his coups with claims that he would restore the supremacy of indigenous Fijians. The chiefs brought Rabuka into their ranks, reorganised the Alliance into the Soqosoqo ni Vakavulewa ni Taukei (SVT party) and regained government with Rabuka as PM.

But life for ordinary Fijians continued to deteriorate, and in 1999 Labour and the National Federation Party again won government, with Chaudhry becoming Fiji’s first Indian prime minister. In 2000, the chiefs backed a civilian coup and the Fijian supremacist “Taukei movement” to topple Chaudhry’s government. The SVT became the Social Democratic Liberal Party (later renamed SODELPA) and took office.

Commodore Frank Bainimarama came to prominence during this coup. He was not part of the chiefdom, but instead had risen through the ranks of the military. Loyal to the state, he survived an attempted mutiny and helped end the coup. In 2006, the SDL government moved to pardon its leaders. Each coup had caused economic and social turmoil, and fearing that the pardon risked further destabilisation of an already weakened economy, Bainimarama toppled the SDL government and seized power himself.

Bainimarama’s regime dismantled much of the post-independence political setup, which had fettered the long-term development and stability of Fijian capitalism. In 2012, he abolished the Great Council of Chiefs and in 2021 introduced land reforms that undermined traditional land boards and made land more accessible for foreign capital.

The 2013 constitution abolished the communal electoral system and Bainimarama has since promoted a “multiracial” national identity. This won him support among the Indian population, undermining the base of both the National Federation Party and Fiji Labour Party. It drew the ire of Fiji’s chiefs, and of Rabuka and SODELPA, who have pledged to reinstate the Great Council of Chiefs and the communal system, and reassert indigenous “Fijian paramountcy” if elected.

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