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Fiji must be doing something right

Once locked in a seemingly never-ending "coup cycle," the 300-island nation now appears to be finding its footing.

Race politics

A lack of equality has been the cornerstone of Fiji’s instability over the last two decades, fueling what some critics call the island nation's “coup cycle.”

The coups have all been bloodless, though in 2000 militants held the country’s first ethnically Indian prime minister hostage for 56 days. They have been sparked by conflict between indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians. The latter make up almost 40 percent of the population. The tension goes back to the late 19th century, when the British brought Indians over to the Pacific island nation to work on the sugar cane plantations.

The country has had three constitutions since independence. The most recent, from 1997, gave a permanent majority of seats to indigenous Fijians.

“Even if you were of European descent and your family had been here for five generations, you could not call yourself Fijian,” said Attorney General Sayed-Khaiyum.

“That way of thinking meant that people hesitated to call themselves Fijian. Even our arrival and departure cards at airports — which we have renewed now — would ask you ‘If Fijian, fill out race,'" he said.

Rowan Callick, the Asia-Pacific editor for The Australian, said taking race out of the electorate is an important step toward progress, but that ruling the country by decree is a step in the opposite direction.

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Since the constitution was suspended in 2009, there has been no parliament or congress. The country has been led by a series of decrees, which are implemented with no discussion. That has met with condemnation in some quarters.

"They issue a decree but they have no administrative sense or capacity. That’s what happens when you govern with two people — you make mistakes,” Callick said.

“I believe [the government] have been well intentioned on equality and have done some good stuff to improve on things like domestic violence, addressing poverty and improving education,” said Jenny Hayward-Jones, the director of The Myer Foundation Melanesia Program at Sydney’s Lowy Institute, an Australian think-tank.

“Whether they are serious on democracy, well I think Bainimarama kind of wants something like what Turkey used to have. Their democracy was guided or tolerated by the military, which had a strong role to make sure the Turkish state remained secular. With Fiji, it would not be about remaining secular but about remaining equal,” she added.

In a recent interview with GlobalPost, Bainimarama said he could understand the international criticism of the 2006 coup but stressed that his reforms have been positive and significant.

"We got rid of our government [in 2006] and that was unconstitutional,” he said. “But a lot of people across the world do not know what has been happening in our country over the last few decades. For people like you, Fiji is a paradise with sea, sun and sand. But underneath, simmering, was a nation full of mismanagement, corruption and instability.”

"We made reforms for a fairer society. We did not have that before," the prime minister argued. "We wanted to get rid of the longstanding inequalities in Fiji. That is what the reforms are about."

But there is a feeling that although martial law has been lifted and there are no longer censors in the newsroom, the decree is de facto in place.

“The Fijian government does not censor, approve or vet articles or newscasts before they are published or aired by any media outlet,” Sharon S. Johns, Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Information, told GlobalPost in an email.

Still, said Callick, lifting martial law “has not really had much impact. ... If the government is going to look for a real debate to get underway in preparation for a return to democracy, I think they will need to find a way to give people greater confidence.”

Another concern is that, even if there are elections, there is a dearth of political leaders. None have had the opportunity to exercise power since the coup, and there are rumors that former political leaders will be barred from running in the elections.

Mick Beddoes, who was the opposition leader at the time of the 2006 coup, agrees that it's unclear who would be allowed to participate in the election. “I guess one must hope for the best and prepare for the worst when it comes to the immediate future here in Fiji,” Beddoes told GlobalPost in an interview.

Yet despite criticism from bloggers and foreign journalists of Bainimarama, a poll done by the Lowy Institute last year found that the majority of Fijians said the country should be left alone to sort out its return to democracy.

The poll also found that 66 percent of Fijians approved of Bainimarama's performance.

“I think it’s because we put a lot of improvements into their daily lives,” Bainimarama said, as his iPhone started ringing to the tune of a bugle call. “They have seen change with our reforms; everything from building roads and bridges to bringing water and electricity to places that never had them before.”

Joshua Momolevu, a taxi driver from Denarau Island, said he has personally benefited from Bainimarama's reforms. On a recent visit, it was all the 30-something wanted to talk about. He said the prime minister had visited even the most far-flung islands of Fiji, asking what the people wanted. Now, he said, many of those islands have running water and access to telecommunications.

So, while the international community may be quick to pass judgment on Fiji, Momolevu has something to say in response: “I think you should ask locals first how we feel before jumping to any conclusions,” he said.