Nicole George is a Lecturer in the School of Political Science and International Studies, University of Queensland.
For many Australians, last weekend's trip to the polling booth was a welcome conclusion to a drawn out cycle of political campaigning. But we forget our good fortune. Not everyone in our region shares the political rights we enjoy.
In Fiji this was made clear once again last Friday, when about 100 people assembled across the road from Fiji's presidential residence in Suva to protest against the military government's promulgation of a new constitution. This gathering occurred as a group of former politicians associated with the United Front for a Democratic Fiji delivered a letter to the President declaring their opposition to the constitution. Before long, the Fiji Police Force arrived and began arresting those in the group who held placards. Fourteen people were taken into custody and released some hours later without formal charge.
Why did this happen and why is the new constitution resisted inside Fiji? From outside the country, observers, including those Pacific leaders attending the Pacific Islands Forum in Majuro, hailed the development of this constitution as a first important step that will see Fiji return to democracy. For many inside Fiji, however, the focus is firmly and critically on the quality of the democracy the constitution will produce.
It is important to understand that this is not the first constitutional document recently put before Fiji's people. In 2012, the government initiated a first consultative process, appointing five commissioners (including international constitutional law experts, former local politicians, and local civil society representatives) responsible for the constitution drafting process. Many on the progressive left of politics in Fiji were dismissive of this development. They argued that the commissioners were 'too close' to the government and would not be able to act impartially.
Nonetheless, local groups seemed eager to participate. The commissioners traveled the country hearing submissions from over 7000 groups representing the indigenous population, Fiji's Indian communities, women's groups, youth activists, and gay and lesbian campaigners.
At the end of the process, the commissioners produced a document that was embraced by both the right and left of Fiji's politics. Why? Because it seemed to do the impossible. It gave recognition to the indigenous population and their rights to land and to cultural protection while also recognising groups that are too often marginalised or denied a political voice in Pacific societies: ethnic minority groups, women and gay and lesbian citizens.
But this was not enough to satisfy the military, which was concerned about provisions which greatly reduced the power of the armed forces and held military leaders accountable for the alleged human rights abuses which have mounted since 2006. A series of leaks in late 2012 made public the extent of the document's liberal content. The armed forces responded in characteristically authoritarian style, seizing document proofs from the government printers and burning the copies already produced.
Then, in early 2013, the military government began drafting its own constitution, a process overseen by Fiji's Attorney-General Aiyaz-Sayed Khaiyum. This new document contrasts profoundly with the draft produced by the 2012 commission.
Rather than making an effort to reconcile the diverse political and material ambitions of Fiji's various communities, the government version adhered much more closely to the idea of an 'ethnically blank' road map for Fiji's democracy. Gone were the special concessions upholding indigenous land rights. Gone were the provisions to increase women's political participation. A bill of rights was included but with provisions that justified their limitation in the case of an action 'lawfully taken for the purpose of quelling a riot or insurrection'. Most worrying were the provisions which made the prime minister head of the country's armed forces, and those which gave the attorney-general wide-ranging authority to make judicial appointments. As one local observer put it, this was a constitution designed to ensure that those in power would stay in power in Fiji, even after elections were held.
Some of these contentious provisions have been amended in the constitution that was promulgated this Friday. Fiji's president, rather than the prime minister, will now be a ceremonial head of the military. Stronger recognition has been given to the land rights of Fiji's indigenous population. But there is still concern that the 400 decrees passed by the military government since 2006 will remain in place under the new constitution and that these will continue to limit rights to freedom of association, freedom of expression and the independent and impartial appointment of the judiciary. Indeed, the Government has included a provision in the document that allows it to change the constitution via official decree until the end of December 2013.
This means that the heavy-handed response meted out to protesters in Suva last Friday will continue. Such incidents have become a hallmark of a government that regularly gags and arrests its critics.
Those who took part in the protest last Friday morning knew all too well the authoritarian patterns of response to political dissent in Fiji. This makes their actions all the more brave. It also reminds us that political choice is something we can, here in Australia, too easily take for granted.
Photo of President Ratu Epeli Nailatikau officially assenting to the new constitution courtesy of the Fiji Government.