What Goes Down Must Come Up
|Telecentres: a new form of patron-client relations?|
by Croz Walsh
Stories coming out of Fiji over the past week or so suggests that little has changed: everything reported has to be taken with a pinch of salt and almost everything is seen differently by one party or another.
At the international level, the Bainimarama government's move towards elections, and the release of the new constitution, have been welcomed by the NZ and UK governments, the E.U. and the Pacific Islands Forum, albeit with a few provisos. Indications are that Australia will soon follow suit.
In Fiji, however, those opposed to the Bainimarama government continue to oppose these developments. A week ago 14 protesters outside the President's residence were briefly arrested and their arrests were seen to breach the right of assembly guaranteed in the constitution they were protesting against. No one seemed concerned that they had assembled without obtaining the usual permit required for all meetings on public land.
Opponents to the Bainimarama government report that the deputy directors of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International Asia Pacific have both condemned the new constitution, the former calling it a "backward step for human rights" and the latter saying it "weakens human rights protection." But they do not specify in what ways the constitution transgresses human rights.
The constitution spells out human rights covering almost every situation but in each case there is a caveat that the right may be suspended in certain specified situations for a short period of time without parliamentary approval. If it is these caveats to which the local opponents and HRW and AI object, they should be reminded similar caveats exist elsewhere to limit human rights in special situations.
After talks with the Attorney-General on the parts of the constitution which caused concern, trade unionist Attar Singh was reported to agree with the constitution. Not so, said Singh. So, said the A-G. These people say one thing in private and another in public. Who to believe? On this one, my money is on Singh.
On Thursday, Mike Beddoes as spokesman for the United Front for a Democratic Fiji (the old SDL, FLP and NFP parties) attacked government on several fronts, none of them new.
- Bainimarama's government was 'self serving' and had awarded itself pay increases ranging from 46 to 193%. He failed to say these increases were recommended by the accountancy firm Price Waterhouse. It remains to be seen what government will do with the recommendations.
- Bainimarama said his government does not make 'empty promises' but it abrogated the 1997 Constitution; did not hold elections in March 2009; corruption has increased; there is no transparency; it has wrecked the sugar industry; key exports are down, and external debt has trebled. He did not acknowledge the long-neglected infrastructural improvements that are the main reason for increased debt; that this year's sugar harvest look promising, and he ignored the Reserve Bank news that the economy is now growing.
- Beddoes also said the standard of living for the poor had deteriorated under the Bainimarama government. He made no mention of external factors not of government making or the many forms of assistance aimed at the poor, especially in education, housing and rural development. Instead, he pointed to FNPF pension funds cut by 50% (because the previous level was unsustainable) and an increase of VAT to 15% (originally a proposal of the SDL government which he did not then criticize). He made no mention of price controls on staple food or food coupons for the very poor.
Beddoes says government has shown no interest in dialogue with the registered political parties (the People's Democratic Party has refused to join the UFDF). Government says there is little point when they continue to insist on a return to the 1997 Constitution, and the appointment of a caretaker cabinet prior to the 2014 elections.
Beddoes promises that the UFDF will continue to "keep government accountable" and "expose its shortcomings at every opportunity", and that it will continue this pressure until the elections — even though it is not yet sure whether any or all of its constituent members will contest the elections. I cannot see how such threats can be considered helpful to the election process.
Two other events raised eyebrows during the week. First up, and reported in the reputedly pro-government Fiji Sun, was a new alignment of chiefs, the Fiji Native Tribal Congress, originally formed in 2011 but silent until now. With the government-funded Great Council of Chiefs no longer operating prominent members of the former Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL) party are leading the way with the new pressure group to protect indigenous rights. They include two top chiefs-politicians in the SDL Government removed in the 2006 takeover, Ro Teimumu Kepa and Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu. Spokesman Suva lawyer and former SDL member Niko Naiaikula says there are plans to hold a meeting "but chiefs have to fork out monies for themselves."
The other event was an address to the World Association of Christian Communications by the new Catholic Archbishop of Suva, Peter Loy Chong, in which he criticized patron-client relations in politics, saying there was little hope of building a democratic Fiji while such relationships persist.
Government critics, including NZ journalist Michael Field, focused on the part of the address that said Fiji's present system of power was divisive, breeding a culture of coups and silence. The local media adopted a different stance, focusing on the general and omitting the Archbishop's comment that the military had merely replaced the chiefs.
One of my friends said the address distanced the Church from the Government which may have appeared not to be the case with the former Archbishop. I replied: "The Archbishop's address criticized all such relationships, and must therefore distance itself equally from all iTaukei power seekers, past and present, including Ro Teimumu and Ratu Naiqama and their 'tribal council'. Patron-Client relations are, by definition, unequal, but they are also based on trust. Trust that patron and client will behave as they are expected to within the relationship.
I continued: "Such relationships are not unique to iTaukei, witness Chaudhry's record, nor to Fiji. They typify social relations in much if not all of the Third World, so they could be very hard to get rid of. Indeed, some scholars think the relationship survives and plays an important role in Developed Countries.
"Such structures persist because they are seen by many to serve a purpose that in part also serves their purposes. Until such dependency ends or is greatly diminished, patron-client relationships will persist, and be used to political advantage. Scholars need to be asking themselves, and informing the Fiji public, on how democracy fits in a society where patron-client relations are so important politically, and how society may be protected against their abuse.
"Ultimately, you and others in Fiji must answer two questions: First, who do you most —and least— trust, now and post the 2014 elections (when a very different regime may be in power)? Secondly, are the 'fall back' institutional structures sufficient to prevent excessive abuses of the relationships? In Fiji's case, this would include the constitution, parliament, the judiciary and the public service. (See my article on the Constitution's commissions published tomorrow on my blog).
So where does all this leave Fiji, another week down the road?
At the international level, opinions seem to be moving in Bainimarama's favour; the battle of words show no signs of abating in Suva; and Government continues to wean rural and remote Fiji (and its voters) away from their client relationships with chiefs.
Starring most prominently last week were the ongoing roadshows that advise people how to access government services; the PM's talanoa sessions with villages in Vanua Levu; and the opening of more telecentres where schools use their new broadband facilities in the daytime and the community uses them after school hours.
All patron-client relationships come at a price but an increasing number of ordinary Fijians may now be thinking they are getting their money's worth.