Getting Too Close to Bainimarama
Scroll down to today's regular posting.After Sanctions What?
There is a serious danger in the maintenance of sanctions against the current government of Fiji which needs to be recognised and examined. There are very strong signs that the radical ethnic nationalists have recognised well in advance of the Australian and New Zealand governments that the way to drive future changes and regain power is to get close to PM Bainimarama.
Oppositional politics are out: now everyone of importance in indigenous politics within Fiji who once opposed the direction being proposed is pledging allegiance and support. The old maxim: keep your friends close and your enemies even closer is daily being practised.
Consider the following personnel to illustrate the point. Fiji’s current foreign minister, the man who is constructing the regime’s international relations and reputation, is Ratu Inoke Kubuabola. An avowed ethnic nationalist, Kubuabola is also an adroit opportunist with consistent personal ambitions to be as important a politician as possible. It was he who led the charge in the SVT party against Sitiveni Rabuka’s strategy of refusing to be part of the Mahendra Chaudhry-led People’s Coalition after the 1999 election. No impotence of opposition for Ratu Inoke.
With Rabuka banished to the GCC, Kubuabola spent much of 1999 trying to take the remnants of the SVT into government. When this failed, and Chaudhry could not be persuaded to step down as PM – handing the leadership role to Tupeni Baba, Kubuabola changed direction. From late 1999, he played an important, often behind-the-scenes, role in cranking up the nationalist attack on the Chaudhry government, which prepared the ground for the May 2000 takeover of parliament.
Secondly, there is the recent well-publicised change of direction taken by Ratu Naiqama Tawake Lalabalavu, Tui Cakau, Paramount Chief of Cakadrove. Presidential aspirant, Lalabalavu has repeatedly spoken out on the need to return Fiji to the authority of the chiefs. Minister for Lands and Mineral Resources in the last Qarase government, he was responsible for the Qoliqoli Bill which was one of three pieces of legislation which the Qarase government tried to introduce before being kicked out.
Lalabalavu has recently done an about-face after a meeting of the provincial council, and is trying to make up for lost time with the Bainimarama government. So too is another prominent nationalist, Rewa High Chief Ro Teimumu Kepa of the Burebasaga Confederation, who has previously been an active opponent of the government.
It would be naïve to think that all three have had major changes of political direction, and have the same vision of Fiji’s future as PM Bainimarama. Far more likely is that these are not strategic changes but tactical, to have a major say in shaping the future constitution, including the electoral laws. Can anyone seriously imagine these three and other indigenous nationalists pushing for other than an unelected President, an unelected Great Council of Chiefs, an unelected Senate and some form of rural gerrymandering for the lower house of Parliament? [Under one vote one value, election rigging can take place through gerrymandering, drawing electoral boundaries to ensure certain outcomes while appearing to provide for the desired principle of equality among electors.]
The more PM Bainimarama is forced to take such people in as political allies, the more likely will be a constitutional solution along the lines of President Suharto’s Indonesia or even worse, contemporary Burma. The international requirement for elections in 2014 could be easily met in a constitution which reserves the presidency for the commander of the armed forces, perhaps even elected unopposed, and a Senate in which a (major) proportion of seats are reserved for members of the armed forces. Parties could be permitted, once vetted, and terms of the current emergency regulations remain for selective enforcement.
This is where future Australian and New Zealand foreign policy comes in. While travel sanctions are generally a blunt instrument, it is ridiculous that people whose skills and personal democratic politics represent a desirable future for Fiji are banned from traveling to Australia and Fiji if they accept military-appointed positions. The current government desperately needs such people to give advice, exercise power and counter the influence of the radical nationalists. However the latter, people of deeply authoritarian and racist bents who would return Fiji to the past are free to travel by virtue of the fact they are not currently holding such appointments.
More generally however, by their current policy positions Australia and New Zealand are not only risking that the regime will be more vulnerable to the politics of those who have never shown any regard for liberal democracy. ANZ are also minimizing their capacity to influence the future direction of Fiji’s political economy. The governments of both countries could well follow the change of direction being practised by leading ethnic Fijian nationalists, and get as close as possible to the present government. If Lalabalavu and Teimumu Kepa can make presentations and admit errors, perhaps so too could Kevin Rudd and Murray McCully. After all, as former Australian Governor General Bill Hayden once noted, in politics there are no permanent friends, only permanent interests.