Bainimarama channels Pinochet
A Word From Afar – By Paul G. Buchanan
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 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 Fiji 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 contained 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. This is particularly so because of Fiji’s stagnant
economy, which has seen the decline of sugar and other important export industries and a rise in social tensions as a
result. That structural condition—the decline of traditional industries—provides a window of opportunity for the regime
to reconfigure the economy in a more globalized, value-added and service oriented way. But to do so, it requires a major
alteration in the social relations of production as well as in political behavior. That was the Pinochet regime’s
greatest claim to fame.
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 appointment 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 (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
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 will ultimately be
for the Fijian military to decide.
Paul G. Buchanan is a strategic analyst and commentator on international affairs. An earlier version appeared in www.kiwipolitico.com