Preparing for Democracy I
and the Coup Culture
By Croz Walsh
It is too simple to claim there's either democracy or no democracy. There are many degrees of democracy and it comes in many forms, varying according to historical and other circumstances. There is no perfect or one-size-fits-all democracy but there are minimal and fuller democracies.
A minimal democracy is being able to vote every few years. Fuller democracies require a shared national ethic and an informed, aware and involved citizenry. The nationally accepted ethic, or sense of ultimate common purpose and identity, tolerates opposition, respects diversity and accepts responsibility for all members of the society.
This ethic, so hard to achieve, is especially important in a multicultural society such as Fiji where history and geography have resulted in racial, cultural and religion divisions that have detracted from a national unity of purpose, and where sharp inequalities exist between social classes, resulting in vastly different levels of education, economic status and influence — and opportunities to use, and abuse, political power.
These are the divisions, used by many Fiji leaders and their misled supporters, that have produced the racial political agendas and a “coup culture” which will continue into the future unless there is greater public awareness and wholesome involvement in political processes. And this is why the “immediate” elections demanded by local and overseas opponents of the Bainimarama Government would merely have resulted in more of the same: a minimal democracy with minimal checks on abuses of power.
Government has taken a number of steps to break this tradition. It has removed or tempered the influence of the old constructs of power — the SDL politicians, the upper levels of civil service and quasi-government boards, the Great Council of Chiefs and the Methodist Church hierarchy— with the intention of separating those who used the minimal democracy for their own purposes from their rank-and-file supporters.
It hopes its Roadmap which focusses on improvements in physical and institutional infrastructure will, among other things, grow the economy in rural areas presently peripheral to the main economy, and so increase the independence of rural people.
It has reduced the powers of the Fiji Law Society whose most prominent members were opposing its actions, and for a time its Public Emergency Regulations censored the media whose past record had done little to unite the nation. It is progressively introducing civics education and multi-lingualism in schools. Dialogue on constitutional and electoral reforms will commence soon, and an election education programme will precede the 2014 elections.
These efforts are to be commended, or at least understood in their context, but two critical issue are yet to be resolved: First, how much participation will Government allow in the forthcoming dialogues, and how well will participants respond? Token non-inclusive participation would be little better than the token “minimal democracy” that previously prevailed; and confrontational, obstructionist participation will not take the country forward. Participation in these dialogues will involve the urban elite, the national leaders, the most educated and potentially the most powerful members of society, the tip of the demographic pyramid. They will not involve “ordinary” Fijians.
Which brings us to the second critical, and imponderable, issue: what degree of participation will there be in the future of Fiji by its ordinary citizens? How prepared are they to exercise their rights as citizens? How able are they to look at issues on their merit, and not be overly influenced by supposed racial or religious loyalties? How likely are they to resist the calls of the racial and religious demagogues who in 1987 and 2000 created the political instability that has plagued Fiji ever since? For without the support of ordinary citizens the “coup culture” will never be laid to rest.
I have said this issue is imponderable because there is as yet no clear evidence of how ordinary people may feel and act. Some two-thirds of those sampled appeared to support the People's Charter which was a good response, given the opposition of the Fiji “establishment”. But that was in the past and we do not know how “deep down” that response was.
It is in this context that the survey recently released by the Citizens' Constitutional Forum provides a window into what ordinary Fijians are thinking, and what yet needs to be done if, to use Bainimarama's most popular phrase, there is to be a “change in mindset.”
Part II of Preparing for Democracy will be published tomorrow.