9. The Military Versus Democracy in Fiji: Problems for Contemporary Political Development

Stephanie Lawson


In this chapter, the author’s focus is on the notion of ‘regime vulnerability’ as applied to the civil institutions of government in Fiji, both before and after the 1987 coup. The author considers the past, present and future role of the military, with particular emphasis on its relationship with civilian authority.

The author clarifies ‘regime vulnerability’, especially in terms of the comparative strength or weakness of civil institutions. She also gives an overview of Fiji’s colonial history and legacy before outlining the role of the military in Fiji.

In terms of future directions for politics in Fiji, the author examines the concepts of overt and covert regimes, and concludes by stating that democratic constitutionalist principles are unlikely to prevail in Fiji in the short term.

Like many former British colonies, Fiji inherited a form of Westminster parliamentary government. The ‘parent model’ was modified to the extent that it incorporated a number of provisions designed to secure a special position for indigenous Fijians vis-à-vis the Fiji Indian community. This deviation from modern democratic norms was meant to stabilise Fiji’s ‘plural society’ by ensuring equal representation in the House of Representatives for the two major ethnic groups. For the first seventeen years following independence it seemed that this model had achieved broad acceptance by most parts of the polity. During this time, the office of government was held continuously by the Fijian-dominated Alliance Party led by one of Fiji’s paramount chiefs, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. In April 1987, however, the Alliance Party was defeated at the polls by a coalition, led by Timoci Bavadra, comprising the relatively new multiracial Labour Party and Fiji’s oldest political party, the National Federation Party, which had always attracted the bulk of Fiji Indian support. Less than six weeks after the elections, the new government was overthrown by a military coup and Fiji’s form of parliamentary democracy followed the path of failure experienced by so many post-colonial states. Both democracy and its corollary model of civil-military relations were shown to have been acceptable to Alliance leaders and supporters, as well as key elements in the military, only so long as the Alliance retained office as government. In other words, those democratic norms associated with the doctrine of constitutionalism and the principle of alternation in government lacked a secure foundation.

The military intervened again some six months later when coup-leader Rabuka[20] accused civilian leaders, including his own traditional paramount chiefs, of failing to follow through his initial ‘objectives’, namely, the absolute entrenchment of ‘indigenous rights’. In subsequent developments the 1970 constitution was abrogated, Fiji declared a Republic, a civilian administration installed, and a new constitution promulgated in the name of the ‘Sovereign Democratic Republic of Fiji’. The first general elections following these events were held in 1992, and the rigid discriminatory electoral and parliamentary provisions ensured the return of a government sympathetic to the stated objectives of Rabuka’s coup. Given this scenario, it might be thought that the conditions for future civilian supremacy – albeit within a traditionalist/nationalist Fijian framework – have been firmly re-established while, conversely, those conditions most conducive to praetorianism have weakened considerably. But this depends ultimately on the strength of the new civilian institutions. These purport to rest on a ‘traditional’ Fijian foundation of authority, and chiefly leaders have the advantage of being able to evoke powerful symbols of legitimacy. But the appeal of these symbols and the institutions they now support is limited to a minority of the population. Furthermore, the recent history of Fiji suggests that, at the very least, the future role of the Fiji Military Forces will be to act as covert guardian of the ‘national interest’. In the terms ordained by Rabuka’s ‘objectives’, this national interest necessarily precludes a return to more democratic constitutional forms which would allow adequate participation in politics by the entire body of citizens – both Fijian and Fiji Indian.

This study takes as its primary focus the notion of ‘regime vulnerability’ as applied to the civil institutions of government in Fiji both before and after the coup. In adopting this approach we shall of course consider the past, present, and future role of the military with particular emphasis on its relationship with civilian authority. As a necessary preface to this study, we must clarify first what is meant by ‘regime vulnerability’, especially in terms of the comparative strength or weakness of civil institutions.

[20] As a lieutenant-colonel, Sitiveni Rabuka was then the third-ranking officer in the Royal Fiji Military Forces. He became commander of the Fiji Military Forces and was promoted to the rank of major-general.