There are worrying signs of a return to some of the racial politics of Fiji’s past after the end of the Bainimarama government, argues Jasmine Ali
After 16 years in power, Frank Bainimarama and his Fiji First party were narrowly defeated in national elections held last year. Fiji First secured 26 seats with 42 per cent of the vote, two seats short of an outright majority.
A new “People’s Coalition Government” headed by Sitiveni Rabuka of the People’s Alliance Party, who received the second largest vote with 21 seats, together with Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA)’s and the National Federation, has formed government.
This followed a period of tense negotiations during which Bainimarama deployed the military and police amid claims of violence and anti-Indian racism.
Shortly after the election, Rabuka, suspended Bainimarama from parliament for three years after he encouraged military intervention against the new government.
Since 1987, Fijian politics has been marked by a series of coups designed to assert the supremacy of the indigenous iTaukei Fijian elite against the rise of a multi-racial working class-based Labour Party.
These began when the Labour Party was first elected to government under iTaukei Fijian leader Timoci Bavadra, with the support of both iTaukei Fijians who had broken with racist Fijian nationalism, and Indo-Fijians.
Bainimarama took power in another military coup in 2006, but with the aim of ending government corruption and the racist gerrymander that had kept the indigenous elite in power.
While many have welcomed the end of the Bainimarama government, the new coalition represents a further shift to the right in political terms.
Disaffection with the last years of Bainimarama’s government has tragically been captured by the conservative right.
The swing against Bainimarama coincided with a period of considerable deterioration in the socio-economic position of iTaukei Fijians, while corporate profits in Fiji have boomed.
During the pandemic, for example, Energy Fiji Ltd recorded $96 million profit in 2021, while real wages continued to slide through a cost-of-living crisis, but CEO salaries soared.
In 2021, data released by the Bureau of Statistics, which for the first time published annual data on ethnicity, showed that poverty levels were at shockingly high rates among iTaukei Fijians, with 75 per cent living in poverty compared with 22 per cent of the country’s Indo-Fijian population. Bainimarama and his Attorney-General responded by sacking the Bureau’s CEO.
These poverty levels were measured by University of the South Pacific economist Dr Neelesh Gounder, who defended the veracity of the data.
The economic position for Fijian workers and the poor worsened during the COVID period when the Bainimarama government adopted policies such as strict lockdown measures, and vaccination mandates.
In 2014, Bainimarama had been elected in a landslide with 60 per cent of the vote in the first election since his “clean up coup” in 2006.
Bainimarama’s “clean up coup” posed an important political break from the politics of anti-Indian racism and racial division imposed by previous military coups, notably the first led by Rabuka himself in 1987.
Support for Bainimarama reached its height following his decision in 2007 to disband the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC), which had been a vehicle for anti-Indian racism and had enabled both Rabuka and businessman George Speight’s coup in 2000. A new constitution, sponsored by Bainimarama, in 2013 abolished the communal electoral roll installed by the British colonial authorities which privileged Indigenous Fijians, allocating parliamentary seats according to ethnicity.
However, by 2018, with Bainimarama following neo-liberal economic policies, Fiji First’s majority was reduced, with the party winning only 50 per cent of the vote, while the conservative SODELPA , then led by Rabuka,, secured close to 40 per cent.
The growing anger at increasing poverty, rising inequality, and Bainimarama’s crackdown on worker and union rights was not captured by Fiji’s Labour Party (FLP) and left. The FLP picked up only 2.7 per cent of the vote and no seats.
Bainimarama’s attack on the Bureau of Statistics was however just the latest example of his government’s increasing reliance on anti-democratic and authoritarian measures to maintain its grip on power.
In 2011, the government cracked down on union rights and the right to strike in certain industries.
The FLP, founded by the Fijian Trade Union Congress, enjoyed support among both working class iTaukei and Indo-Fijians off the back of major strikes in the late 1980s.
But the FLP’s decision to play junior partner to Bainimarama’s interim government in 2006, was repaid by its leader Mahendra Chaudhry being banned from running in the 2014 election.
The FLP’s failure to organise independently of Bainimarama’s government among the working class and the poor of both iTaukei and Indo-Fijian backgrounds has resulted in a serious haemorrhaging of the party’s vote.
The failure of the left to connect with disaffection with Bainimarama opened the door for Rabuka’s People’s Alliance and SODELPA.
Rabuka reinstates elites
While Rabuka’s new government has promised to unite Fiji and bring a new era of change, Rabuka’s move to reinstate elite institutions such as the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC) does not bode well. A review of its structure, composition and role will deliver its recommendations in August.
The GCC was created by the British during its colonial rule in Fiji. It operated as a forum for high-ranking Indigenous chiefs and colonial administrators, and acted, as Indigenous Fijian academic Steven Ratu described, as “trusted compradors” for the colonial state, supporting colonial rule against local rebellions.
Britain, which annexed Fiji in October 1874 after prodding by the Australian colonies, promoted the Fijian chiefs and implemented a “divide-and-rule” policy which separated Indo-Fijian and Fijian people.
From 1879, Indian people were imported as indentured labourers for the Australian-owned sugar plantations and mills of CSR—the Colonial Sugar Refinery.
Later many Indo-Fijians became sugar farmers but were still beholden to the economic power of CSR. CSR also used coerced labour from Melanesian countries like PNG, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu brought to Fiji by Australian shipping and trading companies like Burns Philp in a sordid practice of “coerced labour” known as “black-birding”.
Following the first full elections in September 1966 and independence in October 1970, Fiji became, in effect a one-party state, ruled by the Fijian chiefs’ political party—the Alliance Party.
During the 1950s, the GCC membership had been expanded to include trade union and other urban organisations, and a number of working-class Indigenous Fijians and other commoners.
This kind of expansion was however opposed by Rabuka and other Indigenous Fijian elites. One of Rabuka’s complaints about the changes to the GCC was that it included too many commoners, and “…so many non-chiefs … who will try to dictate resolutions.”
After the 1987 coup the body was given enhanced powers, and the GCC played a prominent role in stoking racism towards the Indo-Fijian population and enabling the Rabuka and Speight coups.
To dispel fears around the resurrection of the GCC, the new government has made a gesture to the Indo-Fijian population by declaring a national public holiday, Girmit Day, to commemorate the Indian indentured labourers who were brought to Fiji by the British.
On Girmit Day celebrations in May, Rabuka even delivered a national televised apology, under the banner of ‘national reconciliation’, for his personal involvement in previous anti-Indo-Fijian coups and asked for forgiveness.
However the Girmit Day celebrations turned out to be just a prelude to Rabuka’s reinstatement of Ratu Sukuna Day, a national holiday that begins a six-day celebration of the elite Indigenous Fijian statesman, timed to coincide this year with the first meeting of the revived Great Council of Chiefs.
Sukuna Day had been abolished by Bainimarama in 2010 due to its association with the 2000 Speight Coup which toppled the Chaudhry Labour government.
Sukuna was responsible for setting up the Native Land Trust Board to administer Taukei land. As Steven Ratu outlines, “rather than emancipating the Taukei from the excesses of colonial domestication, Ratu Sukuna’s ideas and policies simply reinforced colonial hegemony.”
While Rabuka has promised a review of the GCC and pronounced that the GCC should be a voice for all people, not just the iTaukei, he has also stressed that it cannot be modernised, and should remain in the control of Chiefs based on genealogy, as in the colonial era.
Potential for change
Rabuka and his Coalition have also backed the Australian and New Zealand military build-up in the Pacific and their aggressive stance towards China. Rabuka’s Coalition has signed a new defence agreement to increase cooperation between New Zealand and Fiji military forces while withdrawing from a 2011 arrangement with China for training Fijian police officers.
Rabuka has come out strongly in support of the AUKUS deal and Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines. He has also celebrated right-wing Indian BJP Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, in a further indication of the government’s right-wing trajectory.
Both the NZ and Australian governments see China as a bigger threat than climate change, which is already producing sea level rises that have decimated scores of villages across Fijian islands.
The hope for change lies with building the working class action and solidarity that can unite iTaukei and Indo-Fijians in struggle against the massive inequality across Fijian society, and resist any attempt by Rabuka to use anti Indo-Fijian racism to shore up his rule
In February miners balloted for strike action to win pay increases in the Vautokala mine. A major strike could change the industrial and political landscape, especially when Rabuka demands Fijians accept belt-tightening budgets.
Strike activity has the power to win real change and build solidarity across racial divisions to wrest power away from the business and corporate elites backed by Rabuka’s new government.