Fiji is a Pacific island nation whose dysfunctional politics keep it in the news. The other day it was a visit by a Commonwealth envoy, who was there to discuss a possible return to democracy with the country's military ruler. It was previously part of the British Empire, and in that period many people from India came to the island, eventually playing a major role in the economic life of the island. After independence, the institutions of the state were initially dominated by ethnic Fijians. Over time, a politics based almost entirely on ethnicity surfaced in the country, with parties for ethnic Fijians squaring up against ones for ethnic Indians. In the 1980s, a coup by the ethnic Fijian dominated army blocked a government of mainly ethnic Indian parties (but to be led by an ethnic Fijian) from taking office.
Mahendra Chaudhry succeeded in taking office as the country's first ethnic Indian prime minister in 1999, but in 2000 he was imprisoned in a bizarre coup attempt by failed local businessman George Speight. Speight's coup failed, but the fall-out from it lives on. One consequence was that many ethnic Indians have given up on Fiji. They had constituted c. 50% of the population, but the manifest unwillingness of many ethnic Fijians to accept a prime minister from their community led many ethnic Indians to take the hint and leave the country.
Another consequence of Speight's coup is that it exposed fissures within the ethnic Fijian community. The 1980s coup against the instatement of an ethnic Indian prime minister was staged by the army, with that body seeming to maintain a formidable degree of cohesion as it acted to advance the interests of ethnic Fijians. Speight's coup, however, was staged by a failed businessman and his cronies. The army performed badly in the coup – its leaders (ethnic Fijians, like the rank and file; ethnic Indians seem to have better things to do than join the armed forces) declared for the constitutional government, but many of the rank and file seem to have sympathised with Speight.
Speight's ability to break the army's cohesion seems to have rankled with Commodore Frank Bainimarama, the army's commander in chief. My impression is that much of Fiji's politics since Speight's coup attempt is explicable by Bainimarama's personal animus towards Speight. To Bainimarama, Speight is responsible for the army's humiliation during his coup. It was moves by Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase to pardon Speight and his pals that saw Bainimarama stage a coup in 2006 that has brought democracy in Fiji to an end.
Bainimarama has promised elections at some stage in the future, but no one is holding their breath. His regime has reputedly become increasingly dictatorial, arresting and harassing its opponents. It nevertheless represents an interesting development – an authoritarian government of ethnic Fijians justifying itself by fears of how a democratic regime would lead to political oppression of ethnic Indians. Bainimarama might simply be paying lip-service to the lofty goals of inter-communal fairness as a way of seizing power for himself. Even so, the army's advancing of its own corporate interest cuts across the ethnic issues that torment Fiji.
Increasing cross-community opposition to Bainimarama is, paradoxically, another positive consequence of his coup. This might be a sign that Fijians are hoping for some kind of more normal politics, one based on constitutions and rules as opposed to poisonous inter-ethnic competition and coups every couple of years.