By Adelle Neary
Fiji held its first elections in eight years on September 17, boasting a high turnout (83.9 percent) and a relatively predictable outcome. Voreqe “Frank” Bainimarama, who first took power in a 2006 coup d’état, and his Fiji First Party, won 59.2 percent of the vote. Propelled by strong personal support for Bainimarama (he garnered two-thirds of the party’s total votes, which may have surprised even him), Fiji First now controls 32 seats in the 50-seat parliament.
The next largest party, the Social Democratic Liberal party (SODELPA), won 15 seats, while the National Federation Party took the remaining 3. Together with smaller opposition parties that failed to win any seats, they have complained about electoral irregularities and procedural flaws, suggesting they will seek an early parliamentary inquiry into the election. Notwithstanding these alleged problems, SODELPA’s leader Ro Teimumu Kepa has signaled the party’s intention to take its seats in the new parliament.
A Multinational Observer Group, co-led by Australia, India, and Indonesia, including observers from 15 countries and organizations released a report the day after the election saying, “despite compressed timeframes, a complex voting system and some restrictions in the electoral environment, the conditions were in place for Fijians to exercise their right to vote freely.” Despite its flaws, the election looks to have been free enough and fair enough to satisfy Fijians and international observers alike.
The upshot, as Victoria University’s Jon Fraenkel argues, is that any irregularities were probably not significant enough to sway the overall outcome. The campaign strategies of SODELPA and other parties, which often resorted to tired appeals to voters along ethnic lines, deserve further scrutiny. Is it possible, for example, that the election outcome marks the end of Fiji’s history of ethnically driven voting practices? Policies with racial undertones, successful in previous Fijian elections, failed to persuade the many young voters who exercised their right to vote for the first time in this election. The majority of young voters chose Bainimarama.
Of course elections alone to do not a democracy make. Democratic backsliding remains a risk for many of Fiji’s bruised and battered state institutions. Fiji’s bureaucracy and courts, to name two, have been weakened by eight years of effectively authoritarian rule. It is unrealistic to expect them to return overnight to their pre-coup condition.
Regional players, including Australia, New Zealand, and the United States understand these things will take time to consolidate and reform. Engagement and support along the lines of Australia’s move earlier this year to promote public service twinning arrangements will help Fiji’s institutions reestablish themselves in the return to democracy. The U.S. State Department two days after the vote congratulated Fiji and promised to “Deepen…engagement and expand cooperation.”
As others have noted, there are some obvious initial steps for Fiji to continue its reintegration into regional and international affairs, including the lifting of membership suspensions to both the Pacific Islands Forum and the Commonwealth of Nations.
Both organizations immediately offered cautious yet optimistic public plaudits for the successful conduct of the elections, indicating a foreseeable re-embrace of Fiji pending the Multinational Observer Group’s final report in the coming weeks. Bainimarama can be expected to move slowly though, as he will not quickly forget the fact that his government was frozen out of both organizations. He will also see the rival grouping he established in 2013, the Pacific Islands Development Forum (the financial backers of which include China and Russia), as an important way that he can continue to hedge Fiji’s regional bets.
Ms. Adelle Neary is an Australian foreign service officer and visiting Thawley Fellow in the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of the Australian Government.