Regime Vulnerability

Following its early articulation by Finer (1962), the idea that the level of political culture in a given society (and the concomitant strength of its civil institutions) is decisive for the regime’s vulnerability to military intervention has underscored a host of later studies (for example, Huntington 1968; Perlmutter 1981; Rapoport 1982; Luckham 1971; Eide and Thee 1980). And although the general notion has no necessary or exclusive link with the collapse of post-colonial democratic regimes in the Third World, many of the case studies undertaken within this context address precisely the ‘failure of democracy’ problem. Further, Finer’s conceptual framework clearly supports the assumption that Western democracies have achieved a ‘mature political culture’ through which civilian institutions are strongly legitimated, whereas political and social institutions elsewhere are relatively weak and lacking in legitimacy (see Berghahn 1981:69). In much of the literature on Fiji that has burgeoned since the coup, the assumptions underlying Finer’s basic proposition have received implicit support. Various justifications offered by Fiji’s military leader, and many supporters of his initial intervention and subsequent role in the process of constitutional change, have also served to reinforce the images projected by Finer’s claims.

The utility of the concept of regime vulnerability has attracted some criticism, especially in terms of its explanatory and predictive force. Luckham (1971:10), for example, points out that the criteria for determining the strength of civilian institutions assumes, in many cases, precisely that which needs to be explained. He refers to several of the criteria proposed by Finer, and especially to the requirement that there must be ‘publicly agreed procedures for the transfer of power’ (ibid.:11). Luckham suggests that the coup itself may, in some circumstances, ‘become a publicly recognised and quasi-legitimate means for the transfer of power’ (1971:11). One implication of this is that the presence of publicly agreed procedures per se does not serve adequately to distinguish ‘weak’ civil institutions from ‘strong’ civil institutions. But Finer’s basic criterion is rescued from any ambiguity in its application if we simply add the premise that publicly agreed procedures for transferring power from one government to another must exclude any form of military intervention (and this is undoubtedly what Finer meant). It is certainly the case that any democratic method devised for the transfer of power must, by definition, preclude military intervention, for modern democratic theory and practice is founded, inter alia, on strictly constitutionalist principles which deny the legitimacy of force, or the threat of force, in determining succession of government.

Another critic of orthodox regime vulnerability theory, Thompson (1975:459, 466), suggests that hypotheses subscribing to the weakness of governmental institutions as a standing invitation to domestic military intervention are virtually tautological and, further, that overemphasis on the themes which support such hypotheses has obscured the role of the military as a homus politicus in its own right. Four themes are identified by Thompson (1975:460-64). One is that the study of unique historical and cultural legacies provides an essential explanation for present behavior. A second concerns the ‘failure of democracy’ which is predicated on excessive diversity within the polity, a lack of democratic preconditions, and a general disillusionment when economic improvements lag well behind expectations. Another theme extends the second by employing the notion of a political void. This void is created by the absence of traditional loyalties to constitutionalist forms which leads in turn to institutional atrophy. The military, acting as a Hobbesian trump, is drawn into the void. Finally, the ‘disjointed system’ theme concentrates on the lack of authoritative formulae for the resolution of conflict. In this situation, rival groups seeking to establish their own primacy continually undermine that sense of community essential to the structural development of central, legitimate institutions. In the absence of such institutional development – and depending on the evolutionary stage of class relations – the military may be pulled into a praetorian role of conservative guardianship. Thompson (1975:466) comes to the unremarkable conclusion that all these themes ‘share a common image of the military coup: weak political systems pull the military into action’. A key purpose of Thompson’s review of these themes, however, is not to demonstrate the obvious, but to construct an alternative image of the location of the military within the state. This location is described by Thompson (1975:486-87) from a praetorian perspective insofar as the military is perceived to be an integral part of the political system rather than an entity which operates outside it. This has some important implications for the present study, to which we shall return at a later point. For the present it is necessary to clarify the conceptual issues further by examining the notion of ‘regime’ itself.

In most of the literature on military intervention, the terms ‘regime’ and ‘government’ are used interchangeably. This is perhaps because the overthrow of a government generally entails, ipso facto, the overthrow of the regime. Furthermore, most writers in the area are content to utilise the concept of ‘regime’ simply as a term to attach to ‘civil’ or ‘military’. But although regime and government are closely related, they are not the same thing, and it is important to understand the basic analytical distinctions between them. This is especially so in the case of Fiji when we come to consider the notion of legitimacy and how it operates at different levels. Also vital to the study of political structures and their legitimacy is, rather obviously, the state. Control of the state apparatus is the focal issue in cases of military intervention, and associated ideological contestations revolving around nationalism are usually linked directly with this quest for control. The relationships between state, regime, and government are complex, and to deal with these properly would require much more scope than is available here. In order to at least differentiate these structures for the purpose of the present discussion, it must suffice to say that the state itself is the locus of political power while the concept of regime is concerned with how, and by whom, that power is exercised. In other words, ‘regime’ is concerned with the form of rule (see Chazan et al. 1988; Lawson 1993).

Governments are awarded management or control of the state apparatus in accordance with the norms and principles of the regime which are embodied, for practical purposes, in certain rules and procedures. Governments derive much of their legitimacy as controllers or managers of the state apparatus from the norms and rules of the regime. These are generally embodied in a constitution which sets out those ‘publicly agreed procedures for the transfer of power’. All this is implicit in the democratic doctrine of constitutionalism. At another level, however, the regime itself requires legitimacy. And where this is weakly supported, it follows that the regime – and governments formed under it – are vulnerable to challenges which, in the particular case we are dealing with here, came in the form of military intervention. The point in setting up this rather formalised schema here is to clarify the point that ‘regime vulnerability’ entails more than just ‘government vulnerability’.

In the case of Fiji, both the government that was overthrown, and the regime under which it was formed, were regarded by the military and other opponents of the government as lacking an essential legitimacy. This is clearly evident in the justifications surrounding the coup and the subsequent process of constitutional change. But to understand the problems associated with political legitimacy, it is important to investigate the historical context which gave rise to the civil institutions of post-colonial Fiji, and the specific factors which contributed to their essential ‘weakness’. Through this it will be seen that the various hypotheses concerning regime vulnerability are indeed relevant, not only to the analysis of the original coup in Fiji, but to the future of civil-military relations there.