Fiji Charter in Unchartered Waters

(Photo: C.I.A. World Factbook)

On Aug. 5, the much anticipated draft Peoples' Charter was released in Fiji. The charter, among other things, calls for a common identity, electoral reforms, removal of compulsory power sharing, strengthening of indigenous affairs, development of comprehensive social justice programs, and an end to discrimination at all levels of government. It is anticipated that the final version of the charter will be released sometime in October.

Besides the charter, the interim prime minister of Fiji, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, has cast doubt over the possibility of a general election in March 2009, leading to a strong rebuke from the Pacific Islands Forum. Bainimarama has called on all sections of Fiji's community to embrace the charter and warned that all recommendations in the document must be implemented before any general election.

The deposed Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua party and the Methodist Church have rejected the charter as a transgression on democracy. The Indo-Fijian National Federation Party has raised concern over the proposal in the charter to remove reserved communal seats. Furthermore, some influential indigenous chiefs have joined the campaign against the charter arguing that the proposed reform of indigenous affairs and a common name undermine indigenous traditional authority and culture. These issues, together with the draft Peoples' Charter are examined in detail below.

The Draft Peoples' Charter for Change, Peace, and Progress

In September 2007, the interim government of Fiji launched an initiative to build a better Fiji through a Peoples' Charter. The aim of the project was to move Fiji away from ethnic conflict and destructive indigenous nationalism toward a nonethnic solution. To this end, the president of Fiji established a 45-member National Council for Building a Better Fiji on Oct. 10, 2007.

The council drew up a State of the Nation and Economy Report following extensive consultation with the community and then outlined a series of national problems and recommended potential solutions. The council was guided by the following key principles: a just and fair society, unity and national identity, merit-based equality of opportunity, transparent and accountable government, uplifting the disadvantaged in all communities, mainstreaming of indigenous affairs, and sharing spirituality and inter-faith dialogue.

The draft charter argued that Fiji urgently needs to remove all unjustifiable systems, policies, and programs that are based on racial discrimination or narrow communal considerations. One of the recommendations is for an overhaul of the current electoral system and the removal from the constitution of compulsory power sharing. The draft charter recommends as "a way forward" for the establishment of a fair voting system through an adoption of an Open List Proportional Representation.

Currently, Fiji has a preferential voting system similar to the one used to elect Australian senators. A variant of the Alternative Vote system, as it is commonly known, is also used in the Pacific Island nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea. However, in Fiji, the preferential Alternative Vote operated under a constitutional provision where a majority of the seats in the parliament was determined through mandatory communal seats. As a result, the intent of a preferential voting system of promoting inclusive political parties was defeated by a constitutional sanctioned emphasis on communal solidarity.

Besides an inherent tension between the constitution and the current electoral system, there was further political fragmentation caused by section 99 of the 1997 Constitution that requires political parties with 10 percent of the total seats in parliament to be part of a multiparty cabinet. From the 1999 election, political parties, largely based on communal affiliation, were forced to work together resulting in a crisis in governance and subsequent escalation of ethnic conflict. As a result, the draft charter recommends the removal of mandatory power sharing arrangement and strengthening of parliament through a nonpartisan parliamentary committee system.

The charter also would like to realign the role of the Fiji military to include human security. In Fiji, the military has been involved in the 1987, 2000, and 2006 coups and many in the community have expressed concern over the extra-constitutional role of the military. The charter recommends the role of the military to be enhanced through strengthening of its development role through community partnership.

Besides the military, the charter recommends a common name of "Fijian" for all Fiji citizens with full recognition of indigenous Fijians as i-taukei, right-sizing of the public service, increasing the supply of land under acceptable leasing arrangements, and establishing an integrated development structure at the provincial level. The draft charter also would like indigenous development interests to be mainstreamed into national development plans and programs with line ministries responsible for policy and project implementation. Furthermore, under the new arrangement, there would be integrated development boards at the national, divisional, provincial, and district levels.

Political Responses to the Draft Charter

The Fiji Labor Party was the first political party to endorse the draft charter. However, the Methodist Church, deposed Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, and Qarase's Soqosoqo ni Duavata ni Lewenivanua party rejected the charter. Qarase argued that the charter would not end the "cycle of coups" and further stated that it was deeply disturbing to read that the term "Fijian" was suggested as a common name: "The term Fijian is embedded in indigenous population and it was a sensitive issue and will be strongly opposed" (Fijilive, Aug. 7).

The Chief Executive of the Citizens' Constitutional Forum defended the draft charter along with charter architect John Samy who argued that it would strengthen the 1997 Constitution. According to Samy:

"Racially divisive leadership has contributed to the situation that we are now a fractured and a fragmented society. We have intended to focus on the differences that divide us, rather than our common and shared values and interests. We must change for our common good" (The Fiji Sun, Aug. 6).

One of the consequences of the release of the draft charter was the exit from the interim government of three Fiji Labor Party ministers. On Aug. 18, 2008, the interim minister for finance, Mahendra Chaudhry, the interim minister for tourism and communication, Tom Ricketts, and the interim minister for labor quit their portfolios following a F.L.P. National Council Meeting in Nadi on Aug. 17. The party argued that the three had joined the interim government to assist the nation until the draft Peoples' Charter was complete and that the party would now focus on the next general election (The Fiji Times, Aug. 18).

Besides political parties and individuals in Fiji, Foreign Minister Winston Peters of New Zealand denounced the charter process stating that the "Fiji regime lacked mandate to introduce any reform" and questioned how the constitution could be changed without recalling parliament (Fijilive, Aug. 10).

Bainimarama expected Pacific Islands Forum countries, in particular Australia and New Zealand, to question the charter process and hold the interim government accountable for elections in March 2009. As a result, he wrote to the Niue government stating that Fiji would not attend the forum meeting because "Fiji was not allowed to participate in Post-Forum Dialogue scheduled to be held in Auckland." Furthermore, Bainimarama warned that his country would pull out of the forum altogether if it continued to insist that Fiji hold elections by March 2009 (Fijilive, Aug. 18).

Pacific Islands Forum Meeting in Niue

At the opening of the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Niue on Aug. 20, Australia and New Zealand condemned Bainimarama for not attending and for breaching an earlier undertaking for holding elections in March 2009. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who during his party's election campaign in 2007 called for a Marshall Plan for the Pacific Islands, called Bainimarama's action "a direct and deliberate slight" that showed "contempt for democracy." Helen Clark, who has been a consistent critic of Fiji's interim government, compared Bainimarama to President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe while Prime Minister Fred Sevele of Tonga also expressed disappointment at Bainimarama's nonattendance (Fijilive, Aug. 20).

On Aug. 21, 2008, a statement from the Pacific Island Forum "expressed serious concern at the failure by the Fiji interim government to attend the 2008 annual Pacific Islands Forum and consider this non-attendance unacceptable; and further stated that the interim government should have attended to account to Forum Leaders for the undertakings given at the 2007 Forum in Tonga to hold an election by March 2009, in accordance with Fiji's existing Constitution and electoral laws" (39th Pacific Islands Forum Statement, Aug. 21).

Furthermore, the Forum "condemned the recent statements by the interim government of Fiji," "acknowledged the importance of maintaining and encouraging continued pressure from the forum and other members of the international community to meet the March 2009 deadline," "commended the work undertaken by the Fiji-Forum Joint Working Group up to June 2008, and urged Fiji to demonstrate its good faith in maintaining a constructive relationship with the Forum by resuming participation in the Working Group," and agreed that following the receipt of the Ministerial Contact Group's second report, the Leaders would consider a further special meeting of Forum Leaders by the end of 2008 to consider special measures in relation to Fiji (consistent with paragraph 2 (iv) of the Biketawa Declaration) and that measures to be considered may include the suspension of particular governments from the Forum."

Not only the Pacific Islands Forum but the European Union, and the Commonwealth Contact Group led by Sir Paul Reeves have reiterated that Fiji hold elections by March 2009. However, Bainimarama has brushed aside criticisms and has promised changes to the 1997 Constitution in-line with the recommendations of the draft Peoples' Charter.

Indigenous Fijian chiefs have expressed concern that the charter would dilute traditional authority and have vowed to take their concerns to the United Nations under its Declaration on Indigenous People. Deposed Prime Minister Qarase has written to the forum requesting continued diplomatic and political pressure on the interim government but a number of indigenous Fijians have supported the charter highlighting divisions among indigenous Fijians.

On the Indo-Fijian side, the Indo-Fijian National Federation Party opposes the charter and fear erosion of minority rights under proportional voting system. The N.F.P. argued that power sharing was not given a chance to succeed previously and as a result, the party does not support any changes to the constitution.

While the charter has some important recommendations, divisions in Fiji over the charter continue. It is not clear what strategies the interim government has in place to engage with the Pacific Islands Forum, the European Union, and the Commonwealth. Moreover, it is unclear how it expects to achieve consensus on the charter within Fiji. Inability to resolve external and internal stakeholder expectations will impact on Fiji's deteriorating economic situation, raising the possibility of continued military involvement in politics.

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