10/31/2014 10:26 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Fiji's Post-Election Democracy: How Robust?

By Gerard A. Finin

It would be easy to look skeptically at Fiji's recent national election - the Pacific island nation's first since a military coup in 2006 - given the fact that the coup leader who had been running the country by decree since then, Commodore Voreqe "Frank" Bainimarama, was elected prime minister by a wide margin in the September 17 vote.

Fiji voters wait to cast their ballot.

But as one of the leaders of a multinational mission to observe the voting, I was genuinely impressed by the election's organization and turnout, and do not doubt that Bainimarama's mandate to lead Fiji now represents a choice freely made by the electorate, based largely on popular measures such as elimination of tuition fees and bus fares for children attending school.

This is an important watershed for Fiji. In recognition of the restoration of elected rule, Australia and U.S. have just lifted sanctions they had imposed following the coup, and the Commonwealth group of nations has reinstated Fiji to full membership.

True, it's highly unlikely that Fiji's military officers would have permitted an election if they had not been confident of their candidate winning decisively. And to be sure the election campaign provided numerous advantages of incumbency to the interim military government, which, for example, circumscribed media reporting, civil society activities and freedom of assembly. Still, during the campaign the regime opened itself to criticism and public debate to a degree that had not previously been tolerated.

The long-awaited election has now been followed by the convening of parliament, which had been suspended since the coup, and formation of an opposition led by an outspoken woman leader, Ro Teimumu Kepa, who once had been taken into custody by soldiers for speaking her mind. This has opened democratic space for debate and criticism of the government that was previously suppressed.

In addition, the election brought a younger generation of voters into the political process, with approximately one-third of those who registered for the election voting for the very first time.

The author (left) with a fellow election observer.

Fiji's new constitution, adopted by decree before the election, contains a number of elements that are significantly different from previous constitutions. One of the most positive is the move away from a structure that had previously encouraged ethnic voting, essentially reserving a certain proportion of parliamentary seats for each of the country's two main ethnic groups: indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijian citizens whose ancestry is from the Indian subcontinent (a British colonial legacy of imported labor for Fiji's sugar plantations). Under the new system of governance, members of parliament are elected by a single nationwide constituency.

However, the new constitution also includes immunity provisions for all those who participated in the coup, and equally striking is the elimination of the Great Council of Chiefs, a group that had been seen by many as an important link to Fiji's rich culture and traditions.

For the foreseeable future, domestic political stability in Fiji is likely, but it remains unclear if the disbanded Great Council of Chiefs will quietly recede into the landscape or gradually become a source of tension, especially in the rural areas. And the election has not settled long-festering land tenure issues or challenges associated with the viability of the sugar industry.

Fiji's election was by many measures a success, yet we should not be lulled into interpreting this as more than one important step on the road to establishing a more robust democratic society. Although Prime Minister Bainimarama has officially retired his military command, the degree to which the Royal Fiji Military Forces will continue to assert their influence in politics - both directly and indirectly - remains an open question.

As a key center for government, education and business in the South Pacific, Fiji's election bodes well for restoring its place in the international community and playing a more positive role in regional affairs. One hopes that Bainimarama and his comrades in the military will remain convinced that Fiji stands to gain much more as a robust and vibrant democracy than it does as a small island dictatorship.

Dr. Gerard Finin, who is co-director of the East-West Center's Pacific Islands Development Program, led the U.S. contingent of a multinational mission to observe Fiji's Sept. 17 national election.