Australia must be prepared for an undemocratic outcome in Fiji’s election

The looming Fijian election is, like the 2018 poll, another battle between two former coup leaders. The political histories of both Frank Bainimarama and Sitiveni Rabuka are well known in local and foreign security circles, and some are concerned another coup is on the cards. The outcome of the 14 December vote, and any subsequent power grabs, could dramatically shift regional partnerships and influence. Should Fiji’s election again be plagued by undemocratic practices, Australia will have to balance its close friendship with the country and its commitment to democracy in the region, seeking not to sacrifice one for the other.

After seizing power in 2006, Bainimarama chose not to face the polls until 2014. He won by a comfortable margin, but 2018 was a very close race. Sometimes long-term leaders find it hard to walk away from the job; former Samoan prime minister Tuila’epa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi is the most recent example in the region, having refused to go quietly after losing an election last year. And despite Rabuka, Bainimarama’s biggest competition, publicly stating he would not (again) attempt to seize power by force, Bainimarama hasn’t made the same commitment.

This is set to be the toughest election yet for Bainimarama. Although there are no reliable pre-election polls, it’s looking like Rabuka might win, forming a coalition with Fiji’s National Federation Party. The divide between Bainimarama and Rabuka used to be all about race, but Rabuka has consistently tried to demonstrate a change in his stance on Indo-Fijian rights since the 1987 coup. This year, it’s about social issues and government services. And a little bit about who can make the best TikTok video.

The results of the election and the subsequent handling of those results will further test Fiji’s democracy, and the commitment of security forces to the rule of law. A disputed election, possible post-election instability and the potential for political leaders to seek military interference would be an important test for the Republic of Fiji Military Forces, which originally brought Bainimarama to power. The RFMF is constitutionally responsible to ‘ensure at all times the security, defence and well-being of Fiji and all Fijians’. Their role may be critical in enforcing a democratic outcome, or protecting Fijians from the political jousting of the elites.

Giving us some relief from fears of a military-led intervention, this week the commander of the RFMF, Major General Jone Kalouniwai, encouraged all RFMF personnel to vote in the election, noting how important the result would be for Fiji’s future. In no uncertain terms, Kalouniwai stressed honouring the democratic process and respecting the outcome of the poll.

While a coup or a military-supported hold on power seems unlikely, this is still shaping up to be a messy election. Already, Bainimarama’s ‘free and fair’ approach to elections is being pushed to the limit. In November, prominent Indo-Fijian lawyer Richard Naidu was found guilty of contempt of court for pointing out a spelling mistake in a court document—a charge brought against him by Bainimarama’s closest political ally, Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum. Naidu is now facing the possibility of jail time. And this week, a deputy leader from Rabuka’s People’s Alliance party was arrested for alleged vote buying. It appears Bainimarama will use the law and the government system as best he can to maintain his loosening grip on power up to and into the election.

Australia and the West need to be prepared for an undemocratic outcome. After the 2006 coup, Australia, New Zealand and the US punished Bainimarama’s new government by restricting some official travel and suspending some aid funding. Defence cooperation was cut off. Spurned, Bainimarama looked north for new partners such as China and Russia to limit the impact of sanctions. The Pacific Islands Forum (with a hard push by Australia and New Zealand) took a firm stance on Fiji after the 2006 coup, suspending it from the forum from 2009 to 2014.

The regional reaction to this election—voiced through the PIF—will be key. Pacific island nations have continued to develop their own styles of governing and their own styles of engaging with each other. A culture of non-interference, and an unwillingness to be placed under scrutiny themselves, could preclude an overly critical response to a Fiji coup—particularly one that occurred without widespread unrest, like in 2006—or any undemocratic activity surrounding elections. And the PIF can’t afford to lose a key member like Fiji, especially after the exit of Kiribati earlier this year. But even if the PIF doesn’t impose harsh sanctions on undemocratic processes, it is still a forum for dialogue and engagement, and for forming a regional stance.

Australia deeply values its friendship with Fiji, and ‘punishing’ it at a state-to-state level would have repercussions. Bainimarama could again turn back to China to fill any void left by Australia. But ignoring undemocratic processes in the name of a bilateral relationship would mean turning our back on democratic principles and the Fijian people’s right to choose—and could damage relationships with other powerbrokers in Fiji.

Australia needs to uphold democratic principles and values in the Pacific while—if at all possible—maintaining a positive relationship with all parties in Fiji. The best way for Australia to appropriately engage in any possible undemocratic outcome in Fiji is to respond on a regional level, in line with a Pacific-led PIF response. It should seek the support of other Pacific island countries and New Zealand to come to a fair response, advocating the importance of respecting free and fair elections. All partners should look to approach a restorative dialogue together. And if there is another coup, consequences such as restrictions on travel or trade should be decided on in the PIF by its members, not by countries acting alone. That will be tricky, especially if PIF members are reticent to take the lead. But regional and respectful diplomacy is the answer for Australia in this election. With any luck, it’ll be the answer to a question that’s never asked.