17 Sep 2015

Fiji's fledgling democracy yet to take off?

6:09 pm on 17 September 2015

Fiji's head of state has called for the country's fledgling democracy to be defended amid fears of instability a year on from landmark elections.

Fiji went to the polls twelve months ago giving the former military commander Frank Bainimarama a near two thirds majority in parliament after eight years of ruling by decree.

Opening of the 2015 session of parliament in Fiji

Opening of the 2015 session of parliament in Fiji Photo: RNZI / Sally Round

After a display of pomp and ceremony outside the parliament buildings, the president Ratu Epeli Nailatikau gave a forceful address at the opening of the new parliament session on Monday.

"The current attempts by a small minority to set up an alternative state - a so called Christian State - or to overthrow the current Government are unlawful and contrary to the national interest," he said.

"They are an assault on democracy, attempts to overturn the will of the people freely expressed almost a year ago and are disruptive to economic stability. They cannot be condoned under any circumstances."

Fiji's President Ratu Epeli Nalatikau, (centre).

Fiji's President Ratu Epeli Nalatikau, (centre). Photo: RNZI / Sally Round

Among the MPs, military officers and diplomats mingling over morning tea afterwards, was minority party member Tupou Draunidalo.

"I take away 95 percent of what he said as being addressed to civilians and five percent addressed to the military. That's the only part of this country that has to learn about democracy," she said.

The police have rounded up dozens of mainly indigenous Fijians for alleged sedition and they have appeared in court over the last few weeks.

Investigations are continuing and the military says it has been assisting police with their investigations with the deployment of 140 soldiers in the Western Division where the alleged acts were occurring.

The Land Force Commander Colonel Sitiveni Qiliho has defended the military's involvement.

"If we have a defined role in the constitution and we sit back in the barracks and not act on it then what's the point of our being there? We are exercising our role as defined in the constitution and that is the security and well being of Fiji," he told Radio New Zealand International.

Soldiers buy a snack from a roadside trader as the army patrols the street after the 2008 coup.

Photo: AFP

The leader of the opposition Ro Teimumu Kepa says one year on from the elections the country is still in transition.

"The heavy-handed way that these people have been dealt with in terms of sending the military to the areas where the court cases are being held. Why are they intimidating these people and causing great fear amongst them?"

Opposition decries "dictatorship" mindset

Ro Teimumu says in parliament it's been difficult working under a system put in place by the Bainimarama regime.

She says bills are fast-tracked and there's little time for debate.

Fiji's Opposition leader Ro Teimumu Kepa.

Fiji's Opposition leader Ro Teimumu Kepa. Photo: RNZI / Sally Round

"Sometimes we think we are taking one step forward and two steps back because some of the decrees are still in place. There's the new constitution that we are working with. They still have in their mindset this dictatorship in that whatever they want goes and they have the numbers."

But the government whip Semi Koroilavesau says the opposition is in disarray and prone to outbursts not backed up by facts.

"I'm learning a lot of things but I find difficulty in trying to work with the opposition to manage our relationship. They have to work as a cohesive team and provide a concerted and meaningful opposition. If they don't do that the next three years will be very difficult for them," said the former navy commander.

Increased business confidence and opportunity

The deputy prime minister Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum says democracy has brought increased engagement and confidence in the country.

"A lot of countries are a lot more engaged now with Fiji. A number of multilateral partners are engaged with Fiji, so that obviously increases our opportunities. I think the trick for us now is to take advantage of these opportunities and be clever about it," he said.

Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, Fiji's Attorney-General

Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, Fiji's Attorney-General Photo: RNZ / Republika

Mr Sayed-Khaiyum says investment-led growth is starting to kick in.

"The fact that the local investors were confident, I think has also sent a very good signal to foreign investors."

The head of the Fiji Women's Rights Movement Tara Chetty says there has been a loosening of space for community groups like hers but she says eight years of military rule has left its legacy.

"There is still concern out there. People don't like to be viewed as too political, people don't like to be too outspoken," she said.

"There is still that fear around, standing out and being perceived as speaking out too strongly."

Reduced sitting time but more time in parliament's "engine room"

Tara Chetty says the reduction of parliamentary sitting time from six weeks to four after the first year raises a red flag.

But the government whip Semi Koroilavesau says less time in the chamber will be balanced by more time in the committee room.

Fiji government whip Semi Koroilavesau

Fiji government whip Semi Koroilavesau Photo: RNZI / Sally Round

"All the consultations with the public and the NGOs are made then. In parliament there's only discussions between the government and the opposition which the most time are theatrics. I would say that the engine room of parliament is the standing committee."

The leader of the opposition National Federation Party Biman Prasad says only when the restrictive Media Decree is gone will there be a robust democracy.

"What we've seen is when the opposition issues a statement and media doesn't get a response from the government, that story is not reported, or it is reported after a long time and sometimes it doesn't get reported, " he said.

The last year has seen a slight easing of the media rules but hefty fines remain for publishers and editors who infringe the decree.

Semi Koroilavesau says the opposition's concerns are likely due to self-censorship by media organisations which he says could be a hangover from the past.

"The opposition has to basically go and talk the papers. We are not restricting it," he said.

The president of Fiji's Media Association Ricardo Morris says the Media Decree means hesitation to rock the boat.

"There has been some reporting which shows that journalists and their editors and media companies have been trying to push the envelope and trying to push the boundaries that we've known for quite a while. The media in Fiji's still trying to feel it's way."

Mr Morris says he hopes a Freedom of Information bill being introduced this year will improve the media environment.