Changes in Constitution-Making in Fiji Part V – Lead-up to 1987
The last article argued that real issues, policies and personalities had begun to gain traction in elections in Fiji by the 1980s. The 1982 elections clearly showed that by centralizing its 82-page manifesto, the NFP had mounted a credible challenge against the Alliance Party. It is anybody’s guess what would have happened had Reddy removed the Fijians historically “clubbed and ate their way to power” phrase from the Four Corners Australian TV program.
What happened instead was that the fateful phrase was seized on and twisted by Alliance strategists to stoke the flimsily-buried race card. Fijian fears of Indian domination and subjugation in their own country once again became the prime concern that drove voting. All other concerns became unimportant. One other issue emerged - foreign involvement. The significance of this would only become clear later.
Immediately after the 1982 elections fiery anti-Indian speeches were made in both houses of parliament – how dare the greedy, unappreciative Indians challenge for political leadership in a country where they were essentially visitors living on the goodwill of their hosts. This was followed by a landmark GCC meeting in Bau, which was incidentally opened by Queen Elizabeth II. There, the racial diatribe reached a crescendo.
It was clear that the Alliance leadership (and the chiefly system) were rattled and no longer sure of their hold on power. This panic was clearly seen when Mara alleged in Australia that Reddy had received $1m for the 1982 elections from the Soviet Union who were desperately trying to establish a foothold in the South Pacific. This was never proven. Then he castigated Indian High Commissioner Sonu Kochar for attending NFP functions; the woman had to leave.
Clearly the Alliance panicked, the writing was on the wall and talks began to emerge again of a government of national unity. Political immaturity prevented this from materializing. On the macro front the country was mired in a prolonged recession and the Mara government started implementing necessary, but unpopular economic policies. One of these, the 1985 wage freeze, led to the formation of the Fiji Labour Party by Fiji’s main labour unions on 6th July 1985.
This new phenomenon - the multi-racial Fiji Labour Party - entered the political scene on a non-ethnic, issues-based political platform. For the first time, Fiji had a political party that did not champion race. Its victory-focused coalition with the Indian-dominated National Federation Party diluted this somewhat, but the writing was on the wall. On the other hand, Fijian unity had continued to fray within an outdating chiefly system as Butadroka pranced on his anti-Mara platform.
The rapidly-increasing number of urban and educated Fijians had begun to make new demands and look outside the traditional Fijian system for political support. Western Fiji had begun to question the hegemony of the Eastern chiefs. The old yasayasa va Ra sentiment was rekindled. These were the people who had never been subjugated by the colonizers and their local cohorts who were largely from the East.
Moreover, the latent voice of Fijian dissent – dating back to Apolosi Nawai, Viti Cauravou, Ravuama Vunivalu, Apisai Tora, Ratu Mosese Tuisawau, Ratu Osea Gavidi, etc – had reached the point of eruption. In other words, the traditional Fijian system could no longer guarantee a unified Fijian vote under the once-stout chiefly umbrella.
Once-taboo Fijian topics and institutions were suddenly being questioned openly by Fijians linked to the Labour Party. The NLTB was being dissected in public, chiefs were criticized, Mara’s link with the Marela House made waves, a Land Commission was mooted, a single identity for all Fiji’s people was bandied around, etc. Suddenly nothing Fijian was sacrosanct. This was unprecedented and the Alliance made as much of it as possible.
More significantly, a common political platform had also begun to emerge among the working-classes in response to shared hardships emanating from the stagnant economy and a number of natural disasters. This heralded the arrival of a non-ethnic political platform in the country that up till then could only envisage politics through the ethnic lens. The urban Fijian voter would hound Fiji’s ethnic-based Fijian political parties well into the future.
As the 1987 elections neared, Mara again centralized the Cold War and looked overseas for support. His links with the US through its Suva embassy and the East-West Centre in Hawaii had begun to look desperate – the significance of this would only become clear years later in discussions on the 1987 coup. Alliance rule was under real threat and no amount of Red diversions was going to save it.
The signals were all there. For the first time a coalition was presenting to the electorate a non-ethnic mantra. I remember on a January 1987 trip to Lautoka by taxi, I was the only Indian with 3 other passengers and the driver. Someone bought a newspaper in Sigatoka with the headline, “Mara …..”. There was no “Ratu” before the name. This led to a heated discussion about disrespect, greedy foreigners, the need to save Fiji, etc. No one knew that I understood every word spoken and was feigning sleep.
Four months later Dr. Bavadra did the impossible and toppled the Alliance. Another month after that, Fiji was bequeathed with its first coup. People who thought like my fellow passengers on that ride to Lautoka danced with glee while the country hemorrhaged. A new phenomenon had entered the political equation – might is right.
The coup spectre would dog all future governments henceforth. Mara’s, and the Fijian chiefly system’s, hold on the Fijian polity was broken. More factions and demands emerged unfettered. What would this mean for the future of Fiji, its political system, its people, etc. was anyone’s guess at that juncture.
Next, we will look at the aftermath of the 1987 coup and the making of the 1990 constitution. 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 email@example.com