Thursday, August 07, 2008

Fiji: analysing the People's Charter

Since 2007, Fiji's military regime has been pointing to its "People's Charter for Change, Peace and Progress" as providing a way out of the coup. Today, they released their first draft [PDF]. And its hard to know really what to make of it. It is not a replacement constitution for Fiji. Neither is it anything resembling a law. Instead, it seems to be a comprehensive policy platform, outlining the policies the unelected military regime intends to impose on the country after it "transfers" power.

Chief among these policies is democratic reform. Fiji's current system of racially segregated voting should be abolished and replaced with an open-list proportional representation system. Likewise, its current constitutional requirement that all parties gaining more than 10% of the vote be represented in the Cabinet would be abolished and replaced with a conventional Westminster-style government-vs-opposition system. These would undoubtedly be good reforms, which would improve Fiji's democracy. But no matter how desirable they might be, a coup is not the way to implement them. It is also difficult to see how the military regime intends to implement such changes, as the constitution can only be amended by a supermajority of the Parliament, including supermajorities of all ethnic constituencies. With Parliament purportedly dissolved, such changes cannot legally be made before the election.

A second part of the charter is aimed at ending Fiji's coup culture. On this, it is simply farcical, calling for stronger sanctions against coups. At this point, its worth remembering that one of the first acts of the current military regime was to prportedly grant itself immunity for its crime - so those "stronger sanctions" are intended to apply to other people. There's also a line in there about empowering the courts to dissolve political parties "that engage in activities that breach important values of the Constitution", which suggests the military favours the Turkish solution of "guided democracy" where they get to shape policy by deciding who gets to contest elections. The problem - as in Turkey - is that while parties may be dissolved, the people supporting those parties don't go away. And in a country with a strong history of coups, denying large groups of people a democratic path to realising their aspirations may invite them to seek to realise them by undemocratic means.

A third interesting point is land. This is a nasty issue in Fiji, where almost all land is owned collectively by indigenous Fijians, with everyone else forced to lease it. The result is an economic mess, with landowners lacking the capital, and leaseholders the incentive, for significant improvements (except near the end of a term, as a way of leveraging renewal - a "feature" which in turn discourages leases). Throw in a strong tradition of communal ownership, racial suspicion, and claims by the Indian business elite that land is being "wasted", and you have a politically toxic situation. And unfortunately, the military regime seems to want to stir the pot, talking of the need to free up land and echoing the arguments that it is lying idle (arguments made as justification for the mass dispossession of indigenous peoples overseas). There's also a couple of references to "individual indigenous landowners", which could signal an attempt to forcibly individualise title - a process which in New Zealand led to mass alienation. Throw in the fact that the military regime is seen as "Indian backed", and this issue could get very nasty indeed.

The rest of the document is a collection of motherhood statements, in which the regime promises to end poverty, provide housing, restore the economy, etc etc - presumably in an effort to get more people to sign up for it.

The core policies in the Charter face enormous constitutional hurdles if they are to be legally implemented. Fiji's electoral system is enshrined in its constitution, as is its system of land ownership. And it is difficult to see why current indigenous Fijian parties such as the SDL, or the 44% of Fijians who voted for them, would support the latter. But the military regime has made noises about requiring all parties to commit to implementing the People's Charter as a condition of being allowed to contest the elections, suggesting that it will simply try and override those concerns at gunpoint. Which is not a recipe for either peace or progress in the long-term.