THAT disasters always befall nations denied democracy and the rule of law is apparent this morning. Thailand was forced to cancel an ASEAN meeting on the weekend because politics is now being played out in the streets instead of parliament. In Fiji, emergency rule is in place as the military government consolidates its power after sacking judges and silencing media criticism. Commodore Frank Bainimarama now leads a government in place on the sole say-so of the country’s president, Josefa Iloilo. The constitution no longer applies. Serving officers are in key public service positions. Judges are sacked, elections are off the agenda for five years and the press is subject to censorship, with police stationed in newsrooms to decide what people are allowed to know. The Sunday edition of the Fiji Times, owned, like The Australian, by News Limited, appeared with white spaces on its front page, where stories the censors did not like were intended to appear.

Fiji was hardly a model of democracy before the weekend. Over the past 20 years, the institutions of civil society have successively been silenced and the country has been bedevilled by ethnic tensions and unseemly scrambles for political power and economic influence as alliances form and dissolve. Soldier Sitiveni Rabuka led two coups in 1987. Civilian George Speight overthrew the government led by the country’s first Indian prime minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, in 2000. Speight was in turn removed by Commodore Bainimarama. While government banker Laisena Qarase was then appointed prime minister, instead of the legitimately elected Mr Chaudhry, the courts at least re-established the constitution. But despite winning two elections, the Qarase government did not please the military and Commodore Bainimarama removed it in 2006. Back then, he said he was acting to end Mr Qarase’s policies favouring ethnic Fijians over people of Indian ancestry. But whatever Commodore Bainimarama’s motives, he declined to give the people an opportunity to endorse or reject his decision in an election. And now he has pushed Fiji further from democracy. With the judiciary dismissed, the media muzzled and the president a friend of the military who has repealed the constitution, it is hard to see how the regime can be stopped from governing however its members choose. The rule of law is now replaced by the writ of Commodore Bainimarama, who urges everybody to be “loyal to Fiji”, but this coup is less about loyalty to the nation than obedience to a regime that apparently prefers to govern without accountability. There is no reason to doubt Commodore Bainimarama believes he is acting in the interests of all Fijians, but governments that cannot be called to account for their actions inevitably become lazy and self-serving. This coup is good for well-connected military men and their associates in the civil service, but it is a disaster for ordinary Fijians of all ethnicities who are now hostage to the decisions of individuals they never elected.

The Thai people are also suffering from the inability of their country’s fractious and fractured elites to work within a parliamentary system. Last December, the People’s Alliance for Democracy occupied prime ministerial offices and blockaded airports, protesting against the People Power Party government they believed was a front for the now exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin is less disliked than loathed by conservative supporters of the military and monarchy, both for the way he built his business empire and for his populist political approach, which is based on an expensive and simplistic program of assisting the rural poor. The problem for the PAD is that whatever Thaksin’s faults, he is immensely popular and would have probably won the next election if he had not been removed in a 2006 coup. The PAD’s solution to the problem of his popularity is a parliament where the majority of members are appointed, but last December’s demonstrations showed the PAD was happy to use economic sabotage to get its way. The mass action worked then, with the courts removing a government of Mr Thaksin’s allies and installing Abhisit Vejjajiva, who is more to PAD’s liking. But Mr Abhisit has a thin parliamentary mandate at best and he survived a no-confidence vote at the end of last month with the votes of just 246 of the 449 MPs. And with the Thai economy in trouble — it is expected to shrink by up to 3 per cent this year — Thaksin’s allies have decided the time is ripe for revenge. Emulating the PAD, protesters are laying siege to the Prime Minister’s offices. On Saturday, they broke through surprisingly feeble police resistance to occupy the hotel where ASEAN leaders where scheduled to meet. It is hard to see how Mr Abhisit can continue after such a humiliating collapse of control on his watch but whatever happens next, the signs are not good for Thailand. Perhaps the army will intervene, perhaps the country’s universally respected king will demand an end to the discord. However, the only solution that will work in the long term is a government that can command a parliamentary majority after fair elections, giving it a mandate that its opponents accept. The tragedy for the Thais is there seems little chance feuding politicians will accept this. The crisis in Thailand is less to do with democracy than it is a faction fight between powerful people pursuing power at any price.

Indonesia’s elections demonstrate it need not be like this. A bare decade since the Suharto dictatorship ended, Indonesians have got the hang of democracy, with some 240 million people eligible to vote in national and provincial legislatures last week. Indonesian elections are not especially sophisticated, with the major parties presenting much the same policies. And with an electorate this large there are inevitable accusations of corruption and incompetence. But what matters most is that the elite of the Suharto era have either adapted to the new culture or withdrawn from the forefront of public life. And the more free elections there are, the greater Indonesia’s chances of tackling systemic corruption as officials realise they are subject to the authority of the people. It is a lesson the powerbrokers of Thailand should accept, a lesson the Fijian military government needs to know. With democracy either abolished or in peril, both countries are starting down the road towards Zimbabwe and other failed states, where people in power govern in only their own interest. The question for leaders in both countries is whether they wish to wear the mantle of Robert Mugabe.



  1. Save the Sheep Says:

    Well said. This is the foundation of the problem. All arguments are null and void, even if the SDL Government was the worst ever, which was not the case, the method of their removal was and always will be illegal.

    I’ll remember this precedent at my next game of tennis. If I start to lose (which will be tough cos I have a big racket) I’ll be sure to just throw awy the rule book and change the rules so that whenever I hit the ball I win.

    And whoever doesn’t like, well tough cos you just wont be allowed to play….. So there…

  2. Relax Man Says:

    Agree with you mate, this is Fiji not those countries refered and the problem here is reality that the majority support what has happened!! that is why no one is bothered protesting except the sorry sheep, blah!blah! moce Jo….

  3. Budhau Says:

    The author above wrote, “Fiji was hardly a model of democracy before the weekend. Over the PAST 20 YEARS, the institutions of civil society have successively been silenced and the country has been bedevilled by ethnic tensions and unseemly scrambles for political power and economic influence as alliances form and dissolve.”

    If there is consensus on anything, it is the acknowledgment that, things have been phucked up for over the past 20 years. So going back to the same old same old aint gonna do it.

    The issue here is do we go back to the Qarase-style “democracy”, or we try to bring about some change out of what has happened that will get us out of this cycle.

    Besides all these coups, while the SDL was in power, there is some evidence that during both the closely contested elections of 2001 and 2006, that some vote rigging took place. Prove it – well that gets very difficult, listen to Naisoro who talks about the same method of rigging that Chaudary had earlier alleged. For those of you want proof – I will be asking for the same proof after the next election when the Supervisor of Election would be appointed by this regime, the board overseeing the election would be appointed by this regime, the Government Printing folks printing the ballots, those soldiers sealing and accompanying the ballot boxes back to the counting locations, those mail in ballots arriving in some brown paperback – how could they take out 300 legit votes from a ballot box in a marginal seat and stuff that box with 300 of their own votes – that’s all it would take to swing that seat and they will only have to do with about three seats. We will count the west and north ballots first and figure out how many boxes needs to be stuffed before counting the rest of the ballots.
    And right after the election, any paperwork that could have helped with an audit get burnt due to an ‘an administrative” error.
    Of course we will have international observers to verify that the election was free and fair.

    That control over the elections – that is nice to have that control when you are running an election – no wonder they didn’t want Chaudary to be the caretaker PM leading up to the 2001 election – when rightfully and legally was the PM.

    You see – there we have it, “Democracy”, Bainimarama style or Qarase style, between coups.

  4. FijiGirl Says:

    No two democracies have ever declared war on each other.

    Under Vore, Fiji is a menace to its neighbours. Yet another great reason why he needs to be removed asap

    God bless Fiji

  5. Rukunibaka Says:

    Budhau seems to be a smart guy for the wrong reasons.

    Hey Bud,get over it because you idol Chaudary will never ever be in parliament again neither will he be a PM.

    When he was PM he was totally corrupt because he was banging his mistress in the PM’s office, then he built his shack at Laucala Bay into a mansion using $m of taxpayers money and government resources from PWD. Then his racism came out which saw him hand out $30,000 each Indian cane farmers whose lease were expiring then he started on, as Ratu Mara put it, ” meddling with taukei land”.

    Do you think he would have returned in 2000 after all that mess? Stop dreaming because even the army would not have been able to protect him if he did.

    I say good riddance to a thug who will now be hung for treason very soon.

  6. Ben_St0ne Says:

    No i say this.Without fools there is foolishness.How can a democracy be without demography. Let me draw it this way……..Water(H2O) IS a gas.
    But because it’s collecting on the ground and the way it behaves we SAY liquid….Now please put your head up your arse, because it’s sunny in there…go on now, see no cavities.What did i tell you…..kaching.

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