Changes in Constitution-Making in Fiji Part III – Aftermath of 1977
The last article argued that the 1970 constitution compartmentalized both government policy and voter choices on racial lines through its electoral provisions. 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 – the louder, the better.
The two 1977 elections had made it very clear that any attempt to accommodate both communities in a single political platform would lead to political suicide especially for the Alliance Party. It also showed that the Fijian electorate in particular viewed government allocations within a zero-sum framework. Any allocations or concessions to the Indians meant betrayal and less for the Fijians.
That mentality was developed over an extended colonial era when attempts were made to keep the Fijian “protected” from the ravages of a monetizing and rapidly developing world. Interface with the money economy, paid labour, earning, saving, etc. were not part of the extended Fijian experience as he was kept largely secluded in his village with the government acting as his guardian and caretaker. This stunted his growth and ill-prepared him for “real” life later.
By 1970, some fraying of the Fijian traditional system had happened on the fringes. Those who had acquired an education were agitating for bigger opportunities and the government duly absorbed them either into the services or into politics. There had earlier been organized attempts at forcing opportunities fast; one such group was the Viti Cauravou in the 1920s. At independence, the Fijian expected his special status to be guaranteed in perpetuity.
There was however, an additional element in the relationship between the Fijian and government – that was the chief. The traditional Fijian social system, a colonially-endowed construct, was meant to provide the framework of governance for the Fijian half of Fiji’s population in the 1970 constitution. At the centre of that structure stood the Fijian chief who was historically supposed to be the Fijian leader, representative and voice.
Any weakening of the traditional Fijian system, therefore, would have had dire consequences for Fijians in the new constitutional framework of governance – that was the belief then, and there was some justification for it. More importantly, this reliance on the chief meant that the traditional system had to be kept intact to ensure that chiefs prevailed within it so that they could then represent and protect the Fijians in national politics.
This was the main constant that informed the constitution making process leading to the 1970 constitution. The problem was that it was seen as a constant and not as a variable because the traditional Fijian social system continued to undergo change despite a series of legislative attempts to freeze it in order to keep it intact. That process could be stalled, but it was never going to be stopped.
The advent of education, need for paid employment, urbanization, etc. were big threats that the traditional Fijian system faced. Government’s increasing difficulties in fulfilling expected Fijian needs led to resentments that were conveniently directed towards an insistent Indian community who were busy demanding their legitimate rights. Mara’s attempts to please both groups as per his political philosophy of multi-culturalism led to his loss at the April 1977 elections. Democracy was indeed a foreign flower to the Fijian at the time!
I recall an indicative incident after the NFP had won in 1977 and was poised to form government as Fiji waited on edge; a pall of despondency and darkness descended on my village, Vuna in Taveuni. Life came to a standstill and there was much consternation, then confusion, then complaining among kava drinking. In a trip to the local liquor outlet, the Wainiyaku Butchery, an inebriated and unhappy chief lamented loudly, “sa oti (all is lost)” to Adrian Tarte of the prominent Tarte family.
Adrian’s response, “No, nothing has gone wrong, that’s the way it is”. After that, there were mutterings as the group moved across the road from the butchery with boxes of Fiji Bitter. I was only a child then, but distinctly remember the frills-free emotional outbursts that followed. One point kept coming through, how could this happen to us! Our country cannot be ruled by outsiders, this is not right! Democracy obviously meant power in perpetuity to the Fijian.
After Ratu Mara was returned to power at the September 1977 elections, the Alliance changed its political outlook. They were suddenly wary of not centralizing and loudly championing Fijian issues and concerns while a few in the party started publicly vilifying and castigating the Indian community without fear of rebuke from Mara. Butadroka’s popularity suddenly nosedived and Mara was once again in control of the Fijian polity.
The NFP, on the other hand, was bedeviled by its own fractures that brought Reddy to the fore. A prolonged process of healing led to patch-ups that still had remnants of past internal battles waiting to exact revenge. That is what characterized the NFP for much of its history even though Jai Ram Reddy was able to revamp it on the way to the 1982 elections where the political platform adopted by each party would finally play a significant role in its popularity.
Both Mara and Reddy knew that they had to make inroads into the opposite electorate to ensure victory in 1982. To this end, Reddy wooed the Western United Front’s Ratu Osea Gavidi into a coalition. Mara on the other hand, had to contend with Butadroka while hoping that the fractures within the NFP, especially of its Muslim support base, would resurface.
There were a number of indicators in the lead-up to the 1982 elections that showed wariness (for the first time) on the part of the Alliance. For the first time Mara was publicly making negative comments about the Indian community. He also brought in an international dimension that will be discussed in the next piece as we look at the 1982 elections and its aftermath. 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