Ultimatum unlikely to force Fiji election

Frank Bainimarama likes a challenge, but Fiji's embattled leader will not be rising to the latest one set by his neighbours: analysts believe he will fail to hold democratic elections by May 1 this year.

Bainimarama, the country's self-appointed leader, has indicated as much himself, telling local media that Fiji's position - a slower path to democracy - will not be altered, even with an ultimatum.

The military man has also suggested he'd like to keep the top job for another 10 years.

But Professor Brij Lal, a Pacific specialist at Australian National University, says there's no way the military rule, established in a December 2006 coup, can last 10 years.

It is only a matter of time, he says.

"This is an interim administration under siege," Lal says.

"Don't be fooled by all Bainimarama's bluster. He is ruling with guns and fear, not with popular support.

"While he might be thumbing his nose at the region right now, the Government won't be able to keep it up."

Bainimarama led the country's fourth coup that ousted then indigenous prime minister Lasenia Qarase more than two years ago.

In that time he has replaced many key Government figures with military officials and repeatedly broken promises to hold an election to return the country to democracy.

The reason for the delay, he claims, is the need to reform the communal voting system that assigns votes along ethnic lines, giving indigenous Fijians an advantage over the Fiji Indian minority.

The process is not simple. Any change to the electoral framework requires amendments to the country's constitution, a difficult process that will take 12 to 15 months from when the interim Government and other political parties agree on a new electoral system.

The extended hold-up, including several false starts when Bainimarama himself set dates and let them pass, has increasingly frustrated Fiji's neighbours, and this week their patience ran out.

The 15-member countries of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) took unprecedented action and ordered that an election be called by May 1 or the nation would be suspended from the key regional organisation.

This tough line was the brainchild of Australia and New Zealand but supported by Fiji's neighbours and strongly endorsed by the United States.

With Bainimarama declaring he won't budge from reforms, the result is an impasse that will, if things proceed as planned, see Fiji automatically ousted from the group, further alienating the country.

While suspension would embarrass Fiji and exclude it from some regional deals, Lal says the economic impact will be minimal.

"I wouldn't be surprised if the military has already written the forum off as a loss and moved on," he says.

"The problem then remains that Fiji is further isolated and Australia and New Zealand are no closer to the democracy that they are trying to bring about."

Dr Stewart Price, a senior researcher on Fiji governance at Australian National University, says
it is clear the military has had a taste of power and is not keen to relinquish it in a hurry.

Both Lal and Price believe military rule will continue for at least the next couple of years before a restructured election is held.

But even an election, warns Price, is unlikely to change much. The level of ethnic unrest and the continued strength of Fiji's military - the strongest of any small country in the world - would ensure another coup soon follows.


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