By Ryan L. Maness
Impunity Watch Senior Desk Officer, Oceania
AUCKLAND, New Zealand — This year’s Pacific Island Forum saw the meeting of Foreign Ministers from around the Pacific gathering together to discuss issues that involved them all. Primary among these topics was the current viability of the March 2009 Fijian election timetable that had been discussed at last year’s Pacific Island Forum.
While Fiji’s interim Foreign Affairs Minister, Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, seemed pleased with the outcome of the conference, the mood among the other foreign ministers was less optimistic. The foreign ministers were concerned about Fiji’s “slow progress” towards democratic elections as well as with “[Fijian] human rights abuses, threats to media freedom and judicial independence, and similar actions that were inconsistent with the creation of an environment in which free and fair elections could be held and Fiji’s longer-term issues resolved.” They recall the promise that interim Prime Minister Bainimarama made to seek elections by March of 2009 at last year’s Pacific Island Forum, but have, to date, not seen enough follow through. Concerned over this lack of progress Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga and Tuvalu have joined together to form the Ministerial Contact Group in an effort to “work more closely with Fiji over plans for an election by next March.”
Beyond the formation of an international working group, Winston Peters, the New Zealand Foreign Minister, has proposed a more coercive answer to the problem of Fijian elections. At a Forum meeting, he reminded the interim government that a number of institutions in Fiji are run by people from other island nations, such as the University of the South Pacific. Peters wondered aloud whether other Pacific Nations should continue to support such institutions in light of the political turmoil and humanitarian unrest in Fiji, when perhaps relocation would be a more amenable way forward.
The interim government was less than enthusiastic about the scrutiny paid to them by the international community. During a speech that he delivered in Fiji’s capital of Suva, Bainimarama said that elections “are not always, on their own, a magic or quick-fix solution.” He said that central to Fiji’s move forward was the passage of his People’s Charter and a healing of the racial divide in Fiji. He also took the opportunity to attack his international detractors saying, “[i]t has not helped that some detractors have been concocting phony criticisms, lighting up little bushfires here and there, so that we spend more of our time and effort in responding to these.”
Speaking separately, the Interim Finance Minister reiterated the interim PM’s stance that before any electoral changes can take place, the People’s Charter must be put before the people and ratified. He also said that other Pacific leaders need to understand that democratic elections will not cure all of Fiji’s problems: fundamental changes must take place in Fiji before lasting progress can be made. Such changes, Chaundhry said, take time.
Even beyond the interim government, there are elements in Fiji that believe that 2009 elections would be too quick. The Citizen’s Constitution Forum chief executive Reverend Akuila Yabaki said today that he believes that, under the current system, democratic elections will not heal the social ills that plague the island nation. According to Yabaki, Fiji’s current system of race-based communal voting has failed to establish racial cohesion and until that system is changed–Yabaki himself favors a proportional representation model–Fiji’s underlying problems will remain. He expressed hope that the international community would highlight the real issues facing Fiji, namely, election monitoring, power sharing, the People’s Charter and violence in Fiji. Yabaki was also critical of the interim government, expressing his fears that the interim government might try to use the People’s Charter as a way of delaying the return to democratic elections.
In related news, after a prolonged search the interim government has announced that it has found a suitable candidate for the position of Supervisor of Elections. While the identity of the individual is being kept secret until the confirmation, it has been leaked that the person in question is a New Zealand legal professional who the interim government considers to have extensive work experience in the Pacific. A spokesman for the interim regime said that the government hopes that the new Supervisor of Elections will assume their post in the next six to eight weeks.
For more information, please see:
Fiji Broadcasting Corporation Limited — Understanding of Pacific problems — 28 March 2008
Fiji Times — Outcome pleases foreign minister — 28 March 2008
Solomon Times Online — Region to Monitor Fiji’s Move towards Elections — 28 March 2008
FijiVillage — Charter First then Elections- Chaundhry — 28 March 2008
Fiji Times — Stand by Fiji process, Yabaki calls on world — 28 March 2008
Fijivillage — Pressure on Fiji to Hold Elections — 27 March 2008
Stuff.co.nz — Elections no magic solution – Bainimarama — 27 March 2008
Pacific Magazine — Regional Ministers Concerned At Fiji’s Slow Progress On Elections — 27 March 2008
Radio New Zealand International — New Zealand legal professional could be Fiji’s next supervisor of elections — 26 March 2008