Editorial: Better times ahead for Fiji with return to democracy

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Commodore Frank Bainimarama is poised to win the election. Photo / Greg Bowker
Commodore Frank Bainimarama is poised to win the election. Photo / Greg Bowker

Sanctions are often viewed as a limp response to a transgression, never more so than those imposed on Russia after its takeover of Crimea. If well targeted, however, they can have an impact.

This has been the case with the travel ban imposed by New Zealand and Australia on the perpetrators of the 2006 coup in Fiji, the country's military personnel and their family, government appointees and the judiciary. The sanctions undoubtedly frustrated the regime of Commodore Frank Bainimarama, denying its members what had previously been frequent visits to New Zealand and Australia and the use of the two countries as transit points. Now, however, the ban has served its purpose and, rightly, has been lifted.

The trigger for this was the announcement that Fiji will hold a general election on September 17. An electoral decree has been released and a Supervisor of Elections appointed. The election has been a long time coming, and over the last eight years the Fijian people have had to endure a harsh curtailment of their rights and freedoms, as well as the crumbling of a once-strong economy.

A previous pledge to hold free and fair elections by March 2009 was dishonoured by Commodore Bainimarama, as was a promise to respect human rights. But in recent years it has become apparent that he was more sincere about a return to democracy. Two years ago, this led to the restoration of high-level diplomatic representation in Suva by New Zealand and Australia. The lifting of all sanctions follows a visit to Suva by the Pacific Islands Forum Ministerial Contact Group in February.

This offered confirmation that Fiji is on the right path. There remains, however, an element of uncertainty about what emerges after the election. Most obviously, this involves the military mindset. Four times in the past quarter-century, Fiji has endured coups, culminating in the Bainimarama regime's action against a democratically elected government. In effect, military leaders have reserved for themselves the right to seize power if they do not like what the country's elected representatives are doing. That cannot continue.

Commodore Bainimarama has now stepped down as army commander and is poised to emerge victorious from the election.

He is in the process of setting up a political party, to be called Fiji First, and has pledged a bright future for all Fijians. "I want a new Fiji where we have basic amenities for everyone, jobs for all Fijians, an educated Fiji, a smart Fiji and a happy and successful Fiji for all Fijians," he says.

That sentiment is admirable, but it springs from a figure who, previously, was quite happy to suppress human rights. And for every step towards the restoration of democracy and human rights over the past eight years, he has all too often been guilty of a step backwards.

If he is the victor at the election, it will be a vote for the equality of all Fijians. But it will also reflect the sense of fatalism among the Fijian people, perhaps the product of the successive coups, that has allowed the Bainimarama regime to survive with very little dissent.

They will be the losers if he regresses once back in power.

Despite such qualms, New Zealand and Australia are doing the right thing. The lifting of the travel sanctions sends a message to the Fijian people that they are finally on the right course. This should engender confidence in the election process.

It is also important in the re-establishing of the traditional ties between the countries and the promotion of regional co-operation.

Hopefully, the message implicit in the lifting of the travel sanctions will be the harbinger of a much brighter future for Fiji.

- NZ Herald

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