Changes in Constitution-Making in Fiji. Part II: After the 1972 Elections
WEEKEND READING • Allen Lockington column • The Secular State: Does Religion have a part to play? by Fr Kevin Barr • Political and Economic Stability by Biman Prasad • Should the Constitution Commission be Looking at the iTaukei Administration by Crosbie Walsh
By Subhash Appana
My last article focused on the process and context that gave Fiji its 1970 constitution. It needs to be noted that in the lead-up to independence in 1970, the two main communities in Fiji were distinctly separate not only in appearance, but also in terms of administration and government. Both communities had very different colonial experiences – one was a favoured child while the other a dangerous threat to be used to the full at any and every opportunity.
It was this threat that had to be roped into a constitutional framework that not only neutralized the threat, but also ensured a smooth transition to independence without changing any of the power positions. To this end, a number of assumptions were made. One, that the indigenous Fijian would remain united as an ethnic voter bloc. Two, that the Generals would always support Mara. And three, that the Indians would be fragmented with its business interests supporting Mara. Unfortunately, each of these assumptions was to fall over time.
The fall came mainly from two sources. One, fragmentation within the Fijian community; and two, Indian demands for equal status in the new nation. In both cases the unspoken issue in contention was resource allocation. In the lead-up to 1970, a key factor that brought consensus on independence was an acceptance by all parties involved (especially NFP leader, SM Koya) that Ratu Mara could be relied on to do the right thing for all of Fiji’s peoples.
That’s partly why Fiji’s first post-colonial elections took place in 1972 - two years after independence. Everybody believed at the time in the benign oligarchy that was being championed as democracy for Fiji. The 1972 elections delivered as expected – Ratu Mara ascended to PM and Koya became the Leader of the Opposition. Voting had largely proceeded on ethnic lines as prescribed by the electoral provisions of the constitution even though 25% of the Indians voted Mara in the cross-voting constituencies.
This trust dissipated soon afterwards as Mara had to walk the tightrope between nationalist Fijian demands for Fijian paramountcy and Indian expectations of equality. Particularly problematic was the increasingly popular message of “Indians go back home” espoused by Fijian firebrand and government backbencher, Sakeasi Butadroka. In an embarrassing faceoff, Mara let Butadroka face the full brunt of the law for inciting racial animosity and Buta ended up in jail. That helped launch his Fijian Nationalist Party (FNP) in 1975.
Meanwhile, PM Mara continued to juggle between two sets of demands for the country’s finite resources within an environment where making any allocations to Indians painted him as a traitor, while looking after Fijians made him appear racist and anti-Indian. His moment of truth came in 1975 when he set up special education funds for Fijians as a gesture in affirmative action. That signaled the end of any real Indian support for the PM.
1975 also saw the appointment of a Royal Commission under Sir Harry Street to reconsider the electoral provisions of the 1970 constitution as agreed in 1969. None in the Alliance were interested in any changes to a constitution that was delivering as expected citing that it was too early to have tested the constitution adequately. That was the end of any talks of constitutional changes and especially the question of common roll – one man, one vote, one value!
Mara now had to face political opposition on two fronts: the NFP and Butadroka’s FNP. Those Indians who had previously supported Mara were now disillusioned with his affirmative action programs for the Fijians and moved to the NFP tree. On the other hand, those Fijians who felt threatened by the increasingly loud and visible Indian presence, saw the FNP as the only vehicle that would remove the pesky Indians from their midst.
These two mindsets broke the unity of the Fijians on the one hand and forged the unity of the Indians on the other – thus two of the three pillars that propped Alliance rule were broken. Now it remained for enough Generals to abandon the Alliance. This would not happen at the impending 1977 elections, but ten years later would prove to be revealing.
As elections approached in April 1977, Mara faced the biggest political challenge of his life even though this has been underplayed in literature. The magnitude of Fijian resentment of the Indian, the loosening hold of the Fijian chiefly system, the popularity of Buta’s “Indians Go Back Home” chant, the resentment of the Indian towards special treatment of Fijians especially in education and the civil service, were all underestimated by the Alliance strategists.
Butadroka pulled away 25% of the Fijian vote base from the Alliance as the NFP won an unexpected victory. One can only speculate about the aftermath if they had succeeded in forming government at that juncture. What happened instead is that a defiant group led by Irene Jai Narayan, KC Ramrakha and Jai Ram Reddy believed the country was not ready for an Indian PM, especially a belligerent one like SM Koya.
That bitterly broke the NFP and paved the way for Mara’s return via a minority government followed by a landslide elections victory in September of 1977. Life returned to normal in Fiji, but the constitutionally prescribed ethnic basis for politics would continue to hound the country. It is this that had caught Mara unprepared in 1977.
Ethnic based politics was not going to allow for merit-based decision making and broad-based political power play focusing on the performance, policies and personalities offered by the two main political parties. Anyone wanting to gain Fijian support had to rebuke Indians and have handouts ready for the Fijian electorate. On the other hand, anyone looking at Indian support had to be prepared to oppose, thwart and ridicule the Alliance government at every turn.
Within this framework, there was no room for cross-ethnic, development-focused policies because the electoral provisions of the 1970 constitution prescribed racial segregation and competition. It paid to remain in your racial compartments because government’s allocation decisions were guided by that very same compartmentalization. And this was directly linked to political popularity. Fiji politics was thus played out within a dire constitutional framework that had to become moribund in the face of socio-economic changes that were not going to wait for the niceties of politics.
Next, we will look at the aftermath of the 1977 elections and the lead-up to the 1982 elections to understand what led to the 1987 upheaval. Keep tuned.
Subhash Appana is an academic and political commentator. The opinions contained in this article are entirely his and not necessarily shared by any organizations he may be associated with both in Fiji and abroad. Email firstname.lastname@example.org