Fiji’s September 17 elections, the first in nearly eight years, were widely held to have restored democratic rule. An estimated 600,000 voters went to the polls, many casting their ballots for the very first time. But the man in charge before the election —the former commander of the Fiji Military Forces, Voreqe “Frank” Bainimarama— remained in power as his Fiji First party won 294,000 votes.
The Social Democratic Liberal Party, the new iteration of the former ruling party that Bainimarama pushed out in his 2006 coup, came in a distant second place, with only 140,000 votes.
That the elections proceeded without significant disruptions was a positive development. A group of international electoral monitors overseeing the elections endorsed their credibility. Other countries, including both Australia and New Zealand, have been quick to praise Fiji while seemingly overlooking Bainimarama’s troubling human rights record.
Elections are a mandate to act and Bainimarama needs to make a commitment to concrete human rights reform. Real reform would involve bold steps to reverse a culture of impunity that has been a significant marker of Bainimarama’s rule.
If Bainimarama is committed to democratic change, he should create a 100-day plan to restore human rights and media freedom, and to reform laws that restrict rights. He needs to make explicit policies to improve the country’s human rights record after eight long years of military rule.
The Fiji First party should break with abusive policies that the military rulers long carried out, by revoking draconian laws and policies that restrict the media and passing other laws to ensure judicial independence.
Significant barriers toward the realization of fundamental rights remain in place. Media freedom is of key concern. Newsrooms no longer host censors as they did at certain times in the post-coup period, but continuing allegations of government intimidation and interference with the media indicate much more progress is needed.
In addition, the military government failed to uphold the rule of law and encroached upon the independence of the judiciary. Without a guarantee to strengthen the justice system, any commitment for democratic reform would ring hollow.
Worryingly, the current constitution grants “absolute and unconditional immunity” to all members of public service and security forces for any action taken during the 2006 coup. It also reinstates immunity from prosecutions for actions in the 1987 coup. These provisions, which are not subject to judicial review, only encourage a culture of impunity and stand in direct opposition to the rule of law.
Fiji will go before the UN Human Rights Council next month for the periodic review of its human rights record. The ruling party’s manifesto for the election was silent on any obligation to promote and protect key rights, including freedom of expression and labor rights. The Human Rights Council review will be an opportunity for Bainimarama and his party to present to the rest of the world a concrete plan to address Fiji’s key rights challenges.
Whether these elections will stand as a defining moment in Fiji’s path toward democratization or be yet another detour will depend on whether the new government makes serious human rights reforms. Bainimarama has expressed determination to lead Fiji into a new and true democracy, but he can only succeed by first addressing the injustices of the past.
Shaivalini Parmar is a senior associate with the Asia division at Human Rights Watch. Follow her on Twitter @ShaivaliniP