By Jenny Hayward-Jones, Director of the Lowy Institute's Melanesia Program, and Alastair Davis, an intern in the Melanesia Program.

The process of rebuilding democracy in Fiji after eight years of military rule has taken a hit in recent weeks. Elections in 2014 engendered a sense of optimism for a return to representative governance, though Pacific watchers warned at the time that the successful elections should be viewed as a step in the right direction, not a panacea.

Fijian Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, (Facebook/Fijian Government)

Last week the suspension of the National Federation Party (NFP) threw the state of democracy in Fiji into sharp relief. The situation has since worsened with the release of a statement from the parliamentary Speaker, Dr Jiko Luveni, on Thursday which suspended the three elected NFP members. The suspension was endorsed in parliament by the Fiji First majority on Thursday and the larger opposition party SODELPA walked out in protest. 

The message from the governing Fiji First party that robust dissent will not be tolerated and its brazen attitude towards the rule of law are serious relapses in the restoration of democracy in Fiji. 

The depth of the fissures in the Fijian parliament became clear in early January when the leader of the NFP, Dr Biman Prasad, openly considered withdrawing his MPs from parliament in protest. Prasad had signalled the opposition parties' frustration at the rejection of bipartisanship by Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama's Fiji First majority and the lack of resources afforded to the opposition parties. 

Prasad's frustrations prompted the publication of a damning op-ed in the Fiji Times that argued that Fiji's democracy had become a facade. Prasad has been a vocal and pro-active opposition MP who has worked hard to contribute to the effectiveness of parliament. He is currently Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, a key oversight committee that scrutinises government accounts. His chairmanship was one of the most effective opposition contributions to governance, though due to changes to standing orders passed while NFP members were excluded from parliament, Prasad  looks likely to be replaced as Committee Chairman by a Fiji First member.

Two days after the publication of Prasad's op-ed, Supervisor of Elections Mohammed Saneem suspended the NFP for 30 days with immediate effect. The suspension notice cited non-compliance with the obligation under the Political Parties Decree to have party books audited by an accountant certified by the Fiji Institute of Accountants (FIA). The NFP confirmed that the company that audited their accounts — APNR — was certified in Australia but did not hold a Certificate of Public Practice in Fiji. 

Section 19 of the Political Parties Decree gives the registrar the right to suspend the registration of a political party to 'enable' said party to remedy the breach specified in the notice of suspension. The section also provides a process for the registrar to inform the party in writing of the particulars of the breach and allow the party 60 days to remedy it. The suspension of the NFP in response to a minor administrative oversight that could have been remedied quickly and easily seems unnecessarily heavy-handed and hardly conducive to building a well-functioning parliament.

The exclusion of the MPs from parliament is more legally problematic. Section 27 (6) provides that a MP who belongs to a suspended political party shall continue on as an MP for the rest of their term. However, the solicitor general gave legal advice to the speaker that the suspension of the party extends to excluding its MPs from parliament, seemingly in direct contradiction of the Decree.

Solicitor General Sharvada Sharma works directly under the Attorney General, Bainimarama's close ally Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, who has also defended the suspension. As prominent lawyer Richard Naidu has pointed out, the lack of independent counsel for the legislature clearly undermines the separation of powers in Fiji.

The Decree itself predates the return to democracy in Fiji, having been introduced in 2013 during the period of military dictatorship. Along with the Media Decree, key pieces of legislation regulating the practice of politics in Fiji were introduced unilaterally by Bainimarama's regime. Democracy can only flourish in Fiji when the supporting laws and institutions are strong and independent. Bainimarama himself heads the Constitutional Offices Commission, a six member group created to advise the president on public service and military office holders. SODELPA leader Ro Teimumu Kepa and Naidu were appointed to the commission in mid-2015, but Naidu resigned in November and Kepa has stopped attending meetings due to concerns over process. The three month extension of General Sitiveni Qiliho's appointment as acting police commissioner on 10 February reaffirmed Prime Minister Bainimarama's reluctance to cede control over civilian institutions and preference for military officials to hold critical civil service leadership positions.

If SODELPA MPSs make their abstention from parliament permanent, Fiji will face the prospect of a sitting parliament populated only by the 32 members of the ruling Fiji First party. The quality of democracy will clearly suffer if opposition members cannot do their jobs and if government MPs are dissuaded from posing dissenting views.

Social media use has reinvigorated Fiji's long suppressed public debate, and media outlets have enjoyed slightly more freedom to publish criticism and comment. Free speech and the capacity of citizens to hold their government to account are as important as ever for Fiji. 

The Fiji First Government claims a mandate to embark on a significant legislative agenda and continue its northward strategic rebalance. Yet this mandate was won in a democratic election and is balanced by the 18 elected members of parliament who do not sit on the government benches. These 18 members also represent the people of Fiji and they must be allowed to have their voice both in and out of parliament for Fiji to be considered a democracy.