Skip to Content

Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2680

Fiji : Elections Accentuate Racial Divide

By Alok Bansal

The recent elections in Fiji have highlighted the deep rooted racial divide within the country. The ruling Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL) scampered home with a narrow majority of 36 in a house of 71 as against 31 seats won by opposition Fiji Labour Party (FLP).

The two seats were won by United Peoples Party (UPP), an ally of the FLP and two by the independents and like in most developing countries the independents have agreed to join the government, thereby giving the government a slightly enhanced majority of 38 in a house of 71.

However, what is significant is that all the communal seats earmarked for native Fijians were won by SDL and all the communal seats earmarked for ethnic Indians were won by FLP. Not only that two of the three communal seats earmarked for general electorates (other ethnic groups other than native Fijians and Indians) were won by UPP and the third went to an independent.

The lone seat earmarked for Rotuman Island was also won by an independent. As per Fiji’s unique electoral system, 46 out of 71 seats for the lower house are contested on communal basis where voters from a particular ethnic group elect members from their own community.

Accordingly 23 seats are earmarked for native Fijians for which only the native Fijians vote. Similarly 19 seats are earmarked Fiji Indians for which only Indians vote and three seats are earmarked as General for the members of other ethnic groups (mainly Europeans, Chinese etc) and are contested by all communities other than the two main ethnic groups namely native Fijians and Indians. One seat is earmarked for the residents of Rotuman Island.

Only 25 seats are termed as open and can be contested by all Fijians irrespective of their ethnic identity and for these all communities vote together. Thus every voter votes both for an open and a communal seat simultaneously. Of the open seats, the ruling SDL won 13 and the FLP 12. One important feature of this election was that all other political parties were wiped out.

The fact that over 80 percent of native Fijians voted for SDL and over 80 percent of Indians voted for FLP is indicative of a society that is deeply divided along racial lines. It also shows that even after six years the wounds inflicted by the coup of 2000 have not healed. Though there are a number of native Fijians among the winning candidates in FLP and two Indians in the SDL winning list, the two parties generally tend to represent the two dominant ethnic groups.

The government has made an attempt to bridge the racial divide by inviting the FLP to join the cabinet in accordance with the Fijian constitution which stipulates that all parties polling more than ten percent votes must be given a share in the cabinet proportionate to the number of votes polled by them. The fact that FLP has agreed to join the government despite some initial hesitation indicates that it has realised that it can only come to power when the racial divide is bridged.

Despite its victory the government still has to deal with a recalcitrant Army. The military commander Commodore Frank Bainimarama has in the past accused the government of being racist in its approach and had threatened to stage a coup if the controversial Reconciliation, Tolerance and Unity Bill which is aimed at giving amnesty to the perpetrators of 2000 coup, was passed. Commodore Baininmarama had also accused Prime Minster Laisenia Qarase and his administration of following policies that created racial tensions that threatened the country's stability.

The military commander has also accused the government of being sympathetic to Fijian nationalist rebels who stormed parliament in 2000 and held then-prime minister Mahendra Chaudhry and members of his cabinet hostage for 56 days. Military Commander had also openly voiced his support for FLP during the elections.

In the immediate aftermath of elections, the rumours were rife that Commodore Baininmarama will be sacked and replaced by an officer from New Zealand. Commodore subsequently warned Australia and New Zealand not to support moves to have him replaced by an outsider. After initially trying to cajole the independent members to support FLP, the army has maintained a low profile. It has welcomed the formation of a multiethnic and multiparty government and has even welcomed the reappointment of Josefa Vosanibola, (a bitter critic of the Army) as minister of home affairs. Vosanibola however, is keen to seek a ruling from the Supreme Court on the constitutional role of the military. The military has for long maintained that it is responsible for the security, defence and well-being of Fiji and its peoples.

The economy of Fiji has suffered enormously after the coups of 1987 and 2000. A large number of educated well to do Indians have migrated resulting in a reduction in their population (in 1987 Indians outnumbered native Fijians). Of late sugar and garment industries two of the major employers and contributors to the economy have been in doldrums. The land lease for the sugarcane farms tilled by Indian farmers has expired and native Fijians, who own almost all the land, are not keen to renew the lease of Indian farmers and this has jeopardised the entire sugar industry.

It is essential that the new government pursues a policy of genuine reconciliation amongst various ethnic groups as Fiji’s fragile economy can ill afford any more disturbances. The communal voting or separate electorate however, ensures that the political parties tend to take a more rabid line, it is therefore essential that the system of communal seats should slowly be replaced by open seats, which will ensure emergence of genuine multiethnic political parties. These political parties can then usher in a Fiji which accepts racial diversity and treats all its citizens as equals.

Alok Bansal:The author is Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.

Share this