Fiji: Military junta pushes pro-investor “Peoples Charter” reforms

The Fijian military junta is currently promoting its draft "People's Charter for Change, Peace and Progress"-which outlines proposed economic and political reforms-through a series of public forums and "consultations". Acting Prime Minister Commodore Frank Bainimarama has hailed the document as a means of resolving communalist divisions between ethnic Fijians and minority Indo-Fijians, as well as allowing elections to be held and a civilian government returned.

The real agenda, however, is to promote foreign investment and sections of Fijian business by accelerating a "free market" reform agenda that will see social spending slashed, thousands more public service workers sacked, corporate taxes and regulation eased, and more land freed up for foreign business interests. These measures will further heighten social inequality and impoverish many more ordinary Fijians-indigenous and Indo-Fijian alike.

The military seized power in December 2006 after former Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase refused to withdraw two blatantly communalist pieces of legislation that favoured the government's key supporters within the ethnic Fijian chiefly elite. One bill granted chiefs new legal powers to pursue land rights claims over foreshore areas-a move that directly threatened the interests of a number of key foreign investors in the lucrative tourist resort sector.

The other contentious bill granted amnesty to those involved in a previous coup in 2000, which overthrew a Labour government. A handful of soldiers led by ethnic Fijian communalist George Speight held Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and his ministers hostage in the parliament building for weeks. Bainimarama and the military ended the standoff but refused to reinstate Chaudhry as prime minister and instead installed former banker Qarase who had close ties to those who had backed the coup. Speight and some of his militiamen were tried and imprisoned while the real forces behind the coup were largely left alone.

Qarase implemented many of Speight's demands aimed at ensuring the continued political and economic dominance of the Fijian elite at the expense of the Indo-Fijian minority. Chaudhry had been Fiji's first ethnic Indian prime minister. Qarase's anti-Indian "affirmative action" programs, however, cut across the interests of significant sections of the business and political elite, including those Fijian chiefs whose financial interests were bound up with existing arrangements with foreign investors. In ousting Qarase in 2006, Bainimarama rested on these business layers as well as the army and, until recently, the Labour Party.

The People's Charter features 11 "pillars", mostly dealt with in just two or three pages, with a series of bullet points outlining the junta's central objectives. On economic reform the key pillars are numbers 4, 5, and 6: "Achieving higher economic growth while ensuring sustainability", "Making more land available for productive and social purposes", "Enhancing public sector efficiency, performance effectiveness and service delivery".

Economic growth is to be achieved by "facilitating and catalysing private sector-led growth" and ensuring "fiscal responsibility". The document asserts that the public service "is too large for a small nation" and pledges to "accelerate the right-sizing of the public sector through restructuring". This threatens the jobs of thousands more workers in the public service who have already suffered a series of attacks on their wages and conditions. In March 2007, Bainimarama handed down a budget that included an across-the-board 5 percent pay cut for public sector workers.

A central emphasis of the Charter is the fraught question of land, which has long been bound up with competing economic and communalist interests. Over 80 percent of the land is now owned by the native Fijian clans, and controlled through an archaic chieftain system developed by the British former colonial rulers. As in many other South Pacific countries, this communal land tenure is regarded as an obstacle to private investment.

In addition, in recent years many chiefs have refused to renew land leases to Indo-Fijian sugar farmers. This has led to many sugar plantations returning to jungle, with declining exports and an influx of rural unemployed into Fiji's urban centres, where most live in squalid squatter settlements. The regime is increasingly concerned about the threat these pose to social stability; the Charter notes that about 13 percent of the total population now live in these settlements and that 100,000 squatters will live in the greater Suva area alone by 2010.

The Charter declares: "Vast amounts of land in Fiji currently lie idle or are greatly under-utilised." It concluded that the central task is to: "Ensure security of tenure and equitable returns to both landowners and tenants through a market-based framework for utilisation of land."

None of the military regime's measures have resolved Fiji's economic and social crisis. The coup resulted in a withdrawal of significant investments, lower tourist numbers, and reduced aid from the region's major imperialist powers, including Australia, New Zealand, and the European Union. A severe recession, combined with escalating inflation caused by higher world food and oil prices, has ensued.

In response, Bainimarama has attempted to cloak his pro-business program in populist and anti-communalist garb. The foreword to the Charter, for example, asserts that its overarching objective is to "rebuild Fiji into a non-racial culturally vibrant and united, well-governed, truly democratic nation".

This is entirely cynical and bogus. The junta has closed down the parliament, enforced emergency rule, postponed promised elections, thrown up military checkpoints around the country, arrested and assaulted numbers of political opponents, and attempted to censor the media and the internet. This force is now posturing as a champion of democratic rights and social equality.

Moreover, Bainimarama has said he intends to leave the existing constitution in place. This document, adopted in 1997, is mired in chauvinism and includes provisions for communal-based elections. The constitution also grants wide powers to the unelected and exclusively ethnic Fijian Great Council of Chiefs, including the right to appoint the president and nominate 14 of the country's 32 senators.

The constitution is clearly at odds with the first "pillar" of the Charter entitled, "Ensuring a sustainable democracy and good and just governance". Pledging "our commitment to a Fiji free from all forms of discrimination", the military will replace the communalist electoral system with a "one-vote one-value free and fair electoral process". An Anti-Discrimination Act is also to be created, including laws preventing political parties from discriminating against people.

The first pillar also includes references to ending Fiji's "coup culture". But this is to be done by effectively enshrining the military's political role and further integrating it into the country's political and economic structures. The Charter recommends that the role of the military be "redefined", so as to "bring it closer to the people". Similarly, the army's "developmental role" is to be strengthened through infrastructure development and domestic security provision. "National Youth Service" will see many of the country's unemployed youth dragooned into military service.

The second pillar, "Developing a common national identity and building social cohesion", aims at abolishing racially segregated electoral seats. Measures also include teaching vernacular languages such as Fijian and Hindi in the schools and eliminating racial identification categorisations in government records and registers.

Pillar eight, "Reducing poverty to a negligible level by 2015", contains vague pledges to tackle the social crisis. Similarly, pillars nine and ten target education and health. But the Charter makes no attempt to explain how these social services can be improved at the same time as the regime upholds its commitment to business for "fiscal responsibility" and deep spending cuts.

How the draft Charter will be declared formally ratified also remains unknown. It may end up being put to a national plebiscite, which will no doubt be rigged by the military to deliver the desired outcome.

The junta's National Council for Building a Better Fiji (NCBBF)-co-chaired by Bainimarama and Petero Mataca, the Catholic Archbishop of Suva-has been holding public meetings in an attempt to build support for the document. The response from ordinary Fijians is not clear, but there have been press reports that the so-called consultations have been poorly attended. On September 19 the NCBBF announced an extension of the process to mid-December, indicating a failure to win popular support.

The political establishment remains deeply divided, with most of those political parties that initially supported the coup also backing the Charter, while the backers of the former Qarase government have come out in opposition.

The Fiji Labour Party (FLP)-which withdrew its three ministers, including Labour leader and finance minister Mahendra Chaudhry, from the interim cabinet in August-has raised some tactical differences on future election systems but has worked to promote the Charter overall. On August 28, Chaudhry headed a Charter consultation meeting in Ba to gauge support. The FLP has also carried out consultations in Nadi, Lautoka and Suva.

The National Alliance Party (NAP), which represents that section of the ethnic Fijian chiefly elite which has close ties to foreign investors and tourist interests, is backing the Charter. Its leading figures accepted positions in the military government shortly after the 2006 coup.

Former Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase on the other hand-along with his United Fiji Party (SDL)-has opposed the Charter on the basis that it threatens the constitutional privileges enjoyed by the ethnic Fijian elite. In an August 8 press statement Qarase complained that the Charter's provisions "would violate their rights [of the indigenous population] to property (land reforms), as well as their rights to a separate Fijian administration".

Similarly, the Methodist Church (which claims the support of two-thirds of all ethnic Fijians) has condemned the Charter. The Church is one of the most staunchly chauvinist institutions in Fiji and was an open supporter of the anti-Indian communalist coups in 1987 and 2000.

The hostile or indifferent reaction of most ordinary Fijians has apparently infuriated the military regime. On September 8, Bainimarama railed against those criticising the Charter and threatened that elections would be cancelled and the military would rule for a further 20 years unless it was approved.

Whatever the document's final fate, the junta's plans are likely to be further derailed by the world financial crisis. With the US and the world threatened with a severe recession, Fiji's exports are likely to take a further hit while tourist numbers could decline further. Such developments would further exacerbate social tensions and heighten the junta's isolation.