Fiji's Competing Narratives and Uncertain Future

In a recent conversation with Ambassador Winston Thompson of the Republic of Fiji, the ambassador was asked how he addresses skeptics who believe that Commodore Frank Bainimarama's lifting of martial law was disingenuous. His opening remark, "We can only wait and see." While out of context, this response quite rightly captures the larger state of affairs in Fiji. Led by a military leader who views himself as a savior but who is condemned by Australia as a despot, Fiji remains a country with an uncertain future. The only thing that appears clear is that the path Fiji chooses resides in Bainimarama's hands not Julia Gillard's. Barring some major policy shift by other regional powers, democracy will not return to Fiji without his acquiescence.

In the Doghouse

In December 2006, Suva further entrenched its reputation as the coup capital of the South Pacific when Bainimarama removed Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase's duly elected but troubled democratic government. This marked the fourth coup since Fiji's independence from Britain in 1970.

Since the coup, Bainimarama - acting as self-appointed Prime Minister - has talked the talk of a progressive savior. He has announced grand plans to rid Fiji of its deeply entrenched racial divisions between ethnic Fijians and Indo Fijians. He also has promised better and fairer education and economic opportunities that supposedly only a strongman can deliver.

Such policies prey on the very real insecurities of a country that has witnessed the destabilizing effects of race-based politics for a significant part of its post-colonial history. Coupled with Bainimarama's tight grip on the military and media, the coup therefore has been met with a relatively muted response within Fiji.

Western countries and the Fiji diaspora, on the other hand, have been more forceful in their opposition. Australia and New Zealand in particular have leveraged their bilateral and regional influence to try and coerce Bainimarama's interim government to hold free and fair elections. Their position: Commodore Bainimarama is a dictator whose ambitions are antithetical to democracy.

The question then is whose coup narrative is right. Do the Commodore's tactics provide the stability required to implement corrective policies and finally unite a deeply cleaved society? Or, is Bainimarama no different than other post-colonial despots who have risen to power on baseless promises only to deliver pain and suffering to their countrymen and women?

Competing Narratives

Since overthrowing Qarase, the Commodore has remained consistent in his position that Fiji lacks the conditions necessary for democracy to function. His supporters also argue - that the regime has kept to the high-level milestones for reinstating democracy originally outlined in his 2009 strategic framework. They even claim that the regime has already instituted policies aimed at redressing the racial divide through economic and social development and lifting the draconian Public Emergency Regulations which oppressed free society in the aftermath of the coup.

However, in the eyes of the West, Bainimarama's claim that he is taking concrete action to restore democracy is viewed as baseless. They point to the fact the regime has instituted harsh censorship laws, sacked the judiciary, and cracked down on unions, media, church leaders and civic activists. It has failed to be transparent and provide economic and social data that would support its argument that domestic policies are bridging the racial divide. Furthermore, it has severely undermined the positive response generated from the lifting of the PERs by implementing a new Public Order Act, which quickly resurrected most of the concerns that the lifting of the PER sought to redress.

Uncertain Outlook

So, how will history remember Bainimarama? Much depends upon whether the Commodore is sincere in his commitment to drafting the new constitution by the end of the year and holding elections by September 2014. If Bainimarama dramatically picks up his game and delivers on the commitments outlined in the strategic framework, he might yet salvage his reputation and restore democracy. However, if he deviates from his self-prescribed milestones and the 2014 elections prove to be "a pipe dream," then Australia and New Zealand will find their position validated. Dictators do not have a great track record in following up on their commitments. So, it is now all up to Bainimarama and the people of Fiji to decide how history remembers the regime.

Fergus Hanson is the Director of Polling and Research Fellow at the Lowy Institute in Australia.

Eddie Walsh is a senior foreign correspondent who covers Africa and Asia-Pacific. He also serves as a non-resident fellow at CSIS and as vice chair of the International Correspondents Committee at the National Press Club. Follow him on Twitter: @aseanreporting