Bainimarama channels Pinochet.

The Fijian military-bureaucratic regime fronted by Commodore “Frank” Bainimarama has promised elections for September 2014, these having been preceded by a constitutional consultation process that is to produce a new Charter in September 2013. The timetabling of the elections will follow ratification of the new Constitution.

The Commodore has already said that he intends to stand for Prime Minister in the 2014 elections. This presumably means that he will retire from active service and lead a military-backed party in them while allowing for open party competition. To date there is no sign of either milestone happening. Nor, for that matter, have the terms of the constitutional consultation process been detailed, which is of import because the presumed stakeholders in the re-making of the foundational document would have to include groups that are currently banned, dismantled, in exile or subject to legal and physical restraints on their activities.

On the other hand, the Bainimarama regime has, under the de facto state of emergency it has ruled by since 2006, used executive decrees to reshape the legal context in which these actors will need to operate. That includes the Essential Services Bill, which outlaws strikes and imposes serious restrictions on union activities in violation of International Labour Organisation standards. This exclusionary state corporatist approach to labor relations has been paralleled by similar efforts to control the media (to include provisions that media outlets have to be majority owned by Fijian citizens, which forced out foreign-controlled news agencies). In fact, there has been a militarization of the Fijian state apparatus as a whole under the Commodore’s rule, as active duty, retired, reservists and relatives of military personnel are given privileged access to civil service jobs. This form of patronage is designed to maintain loyalty as well as promote a military perspective on policy-implementation within the public bureaucracy.  Given that the regime’s “Peoples Charter for Change, Peace and Progress” proposes a profound transformation of cultural mores, social structures, political institutions and economic practices as part of a project of national rebirth overseen by the Republic of Fijian Military Forces, it seems that military colonization of the state apparatus is being used as a pre-requisite for the pursuit of those goals.

Such ambitious objectives cannot be achieved within the timeframe currently outlined for the constitutional re-draft and elections. That means that either Bainimarama and his colleagues have no intention of relinquishing control in 2014, or at best plan to use the elections as a procedural fig leaf with which to legitimize a military backed “civilian” government led by the Commodore that will continue to pursue the transformational objectives of the Peoples Charter. Since those objectives will be resisted, the elections will have to be rigged and dissent suppressed after they are over. What is envisioned, in other words, is what in Latin America have been called “guarded” or “protected” democracies, or for those who know Spanish, “democraduras” (“hard” democracies).

The Latin connection may in fact be stronger. The Pinochet regime in Chile held a constitutional referendum five years after it came to power in which it re-drew the foundational principles of the nation so that challenges to private control of the means of production and elite domination of the political system were made near impossible. Pinochet also colonized the state apparatus with  military personnel (although in his case the appointments were designed to promote ideological uniformity within the public bureaucracy rather than as a form of personal patronage). His timetable for the foundational elections of 1989 was established by the 1978 constitution and included Pinochet as the leader of a civilian party after his retirement. It had provisions for conservative control of the Senate (including the appointment of “Senators for life” by the Pinochet regime before its departure) and for military veto of legislation deemed inimical to national security or the national interest. Popular resistance eventually forced Pinochet to abandon his plans to rule in civilian guise after 1989 (in exchange for other conservative guarantees like those listed above), but the model for an orderly transition to a “guarded” democracy after a major constitutional reform was established by his regime. It will therefore be interesting to see what materializes in the constitutional reform process set to get underway in Fiji next year.

Given Chile’s market-driven economic “success” and the elimination of serious threats to the socio-economic and political status quo resultant from the authoritarian episode and its constitutional revisions, it seems possible that the Bainimarama regime has taken more than passing interest in it. In fact, it appears that mutatis mutandis, the Commodore and his clique have emulated the Pinochet experiment, Fijian style. The objective, as far as can be determined at this point, seems to be to establish the bases by which a “protected” or “guarded” elected civilian regime can be installed that will continue the transformational objectives outlined in the People’s Charter. Or, it could just be the best way for the regime and its supporters to continue to feed at the public trough. Either way, it is likely that the 2014 elections will not be an honestly contested affair, if they are held at all.

The second alternative (military colonization of the state as a source of patronage and rent-seeking) is not a frivolous aside. Corruption is rife in the Fijian public service, and military appointments to it on non-meritorious grounds exacerbates the problem while diminishing the organizational efficiency (such as it is) of public services. Moreover, it has been demonstrated in Latin America and elsewhere that military colonization of the civil service leads to a deterioration of operational readiness and command authority the longer soldiers are seated at desks in civilian Ministries. This is a problem for the Fijian military, which prides itself on its professionalism (mostly related to its long history of UN peace-keeping service), and which sees itself as the guardian of the nation (it should be noted that the Fijian military swears allegiance to the nation, not the constitution–as the suspension of the 1997 constitution clearly shows).

The more the Bainimarama regime colonizes the Fijian state with soldiers (however smart it may be as a tactical move given his objectives), the more likely that divisions will emerge in the ranks over the proper military role and adherence to corporate standards of conduct. It is one thing to be an arbitrator or mediator military in a praetorian civil-military relations context that intervenes in politics when civilian governments prove too inept or corrupt to govern (as has been the case in Fiji since independence in 1970). It is another thing for the military to try to rule as an institution over the long-term, especially when kleptocratic tendencies are encouraged by the use of military sinecures as sources of patronage. The downside of the latter is great on several levels.

Needless to say there is much more to the Fijian transitional picture, if that is in fact what we are observing. The praetorian nature of Fijian society, evident in zero-sum approaches to politics and economics that results in an impossible game of mutual vetos between contending interest groups divided by ethnicity and class, has continually “pulled” the military into intervening (in 1987, 2000 and 2006). The incompetence of civilian elected governments, the nepotistic and opaque ways in which business is conducted, and the general malaise of civilian institutions accentuate the military urge to put things right. Having failed in its arbitrator role, it now seems that Bainimarama and his colleagues want to perpetuate military rule, even if under civilian guise after 2014, so as to continue the process of national transformation in order to eventually “put things right.”

All of this is set against the backdrop of Fiji re-orienting its “Looking North” foreign policy from West to East in response to the sanctions imposed by its traditional allies and partners (Fiji has been suspended from the Pacific Island Forum, seen the suspension of financial aid from the EU and Asian Development Bank and downgraded its diplomatic ties with Australia and New Zealand as a result of their criticism of the coup and its aftermath). The Commodore has emphasized the need for a “re-balancing” of Fiji’s foreign relations, and to that end has encouraged closer trade, investment and/or military ties with Asian nations (particularly China) and the Middle East. Although these new ties have not brought Fiji out of its economic doldrums as of yet (net growth has been negligible for the last five years even though tourism is at all-time highs in terms of visitors and contribution to GDP), they do allow the Bainimarama regime some room for maneuver as it works to reconcile the constitutional reform and election timetables with its long-term objectives.

All of which is to say, if I were a bettor or a futures forecaster, I would hedge against uncertainty and assume that the 2014 elections will be delayed, manipulated or even canceled. As for the longer-term future–that ultimately will be for the Fijian military to decide.

7 thoughts on “Bainimarama channels Pinochet.

  1. Can you judge people by the company they keep? regarding “Voreqe”, quite likely.
    • starting Jan 79, Bainimarama was on the Chilean naval ship Esmeralda for six months
    • 1991, Malaysian Armed Forces Staff College, Aussie Defence Warfare Centre NSW
    • 1993, Asian Institute of technology
    • 1994, Aussie Joint Services Staff College
    • 1996, Integrated Logistics Support Overview course of the Australian Defence Co-operation Program
    • 1998 &1999, Chief of Army Conferences in Singapore
    So while presenting as a bit of a lunkhead he certainly has the back story and exposure to ideas that would enable implementing one or other of the strategies Pablo has described. Not to say that the above apart from the first two, would necessarily encourage the type of behaviour Frank has indulged in to date.

    This matters because? Countries subject to authoritarian rule typically suffer on for decades after and that is the malaise of Fiji. The sinking lid. Heaps of Indians departed after the first coup. A few villages get paid by surfers to use the beach but so what? It is a degraded society. Pensions are being gutted with the help of compliant or coerced “ring fenced” civil servants and imported consultants. I would like to say more but do not want to identify people.
    Currently in Chile, according to various sources, 45% of high school students study in traditional public schools and most universities are also private. Not many if any public universities have been built since Pinochet’s demise. Private enterprise schools to the max. There were major demos by students in Chile through August this year. The Chilean ‘solution’ is not needed in any nation desiring a civil society. The long thin country legacy continues to resonate.

  2. Oh, for crying out loud! “Frank” and “Voreqe”. How am I supposed to take any of your arguments seriously when you dump his name into “scare quotes”. I have seen scare quotes used around a person’s name as a way of denying that person agency or validity in order to render that person’s arguments invalid a few too many times to take seriously the arguments of anybody who feels the need to put their opponents’ names into “scare quotes”.

    I don’t like Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama any more than you do, but if you have to wrap his name in “scare quotes” to show me just how incapable he is of holding a valid point of view, why should I consider the views you put forward to be valid?

    And “Royal Fijian Military Forces”? Fiji has been a republic since 1987. Could a bit of fact checking be in order?

  3. Chris:

    You read too much into the use of quotes. I use them around “Frank” because that is his Anglicised nickname, nothing more. I never mentioned “Voreqe”,although TM did, for which you will have to address him.

    As for the RFMF. That is its official, self-described designation. It appears on its documentation and in other sources like Jane’s Defense and the CIA World Factbook. I assume that the use of the word “royal” in Fiji is akin to that employed by the RNZN–Royal New Zealand Navy. Archaic perhaps, but again you will have to take it up with those who serve under the designator.

    Oh, and Fiji has been a “republic” since 1970. I put the term “republic” in quotes because technically, as a member of the Commonwealth, it is not. But that is the country’s official name.

  4. I was aware that it was TM who wrote “Voreqe”. My comment was aimed at both of you.

    Googling “republic of Fiji Military Forces” gets as the first result, a page which has Republic instead of Royal in its title. Clicking “About” takes you to a page that, again, clearly states Republic of Fiji Military Forces. And I just checked the CIA world factbook, which also states clearly Republic of Fiji Military Forces.

    The use of Royal in the RNZN and RNZAF is not archaic as New Zealand, unlike Fiji, but like Australia, Canada, Jamaica, the Solomon Islands, the UK and the other Commonwealth realms, is a constitutional monarchy with Queen Elizabeth II as head of state.

    Fiji, like India, Singapore, and indeed most Commonwealth countries, is a republic, no “scare quotes” necessary. Liz is head of the Commonwealth, but not head of state of those Commonwealth countries that are republics or that have their own monarch (Malaysia and Tonga).

    And Fiji gained its independence in 1970. It become a republic after the 1987 coups when it replaced the monarchy with a republic and the governor general with a president. But on this the CIA World Factbook doesn’t seem to have any information, and even lists Fiji as having no international disputes. I was under the impression that it does dispute ownership of a reef or two with Tonga. Trusty old Wikipedia has a little more detail on Fiji’s history, and the article on Fiji-Tonga relations explains the dispute over the Minerva reefs.

  5. Pablo,

    Since you did make that comparison between Chile’s Pinochet and Fiji’s Frank; it was a terrible remiss to not have pointed out the CIA’s involvement in Chile and the ‘Domino theory’ that was prevalent at that time frame.

    Fast forward to Frank’s Fiji, although you did allude to the look north policy that Fiji has adopted. But overlooked that Fiji is now a member of Non-Alignment-Movement Bloc and given the current trajectory the Pacific Forum diplomatic significance would be downgraded and sub-groupings like MSG more respected because it does not involve NZ, Aus or the US.

    This exactly what has evolved with the Latin Americas and Caribbean nation’s new bloc called CELAC , that omits the US and Canada.

    In South Pacific geo-strategic terms, Fiji has thrown the “spanner into the works” of America’s Pacific century and the accompanying TPP Free trade deals that spin into PACER Plus in the Pacific.

    Judging from the current status of global events, of Australia inviting Marines into Darwin and the political stand off in PNG, things are just about to get hairy.

  6. LF:

    Indeed the larger picture is an extension of what I said in the last paragraph of the post: time to hedge bets because uncertainty abounds, both regional and national.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *