Category Archives: Pacific Islands

Palau – Remengesau narrowly retains office

While the world’s attention had been focused on the US presidential election, on the other side of the Pacific Ocean the island nation of Palau (population, 20,000), formerly part of the US Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, also went to the polls. But, where the US appears to have voted for unprecedented change, the people of Palau have opted for stability, returning President Tommy Remengesau for a record fourth term.

The election was interesting for a number of reasons, including the fact that Remengesau was running against his brother-in-law, Sen. Surangel Whipps Jr., but also because of how close the ballot was. In the end, the unofficial tally has Remengesau on 5,109 votes while Whipps received 4,854 (In the vice presidential race, Arnold Oilouch is leading with 5,196 votes against Yositaka Adachi who had 4,643 votes). But, this was only decided after a protracted count in which around 3000 absentee votes from Palauan’s living overseas proved crucial. Reflecting this, Remengesau stated on his Facebook page that:

“This campaign required a strong and organized grassroots movement that needed to reach out to the thousands of Palauans here at home and many more thousands of our fellow Palauans living abroad. Throughout my life and career as your grassroots candidate, I have never been through an election such as this. It took so much to get this far, and I am sure you and your family feel the same way. The longest and costliest campaign in our history required us to keep up with the unprecedented campaign efforts of our opponents.”

Remengesau is the eighth President of the Republic of Palau, and the first to be elected for four times. This is not the first political record he has set, however. He was also the youngest ever Palauan Senator when first elected aged 28. He was elected Vice President in 1992 and 1996. He served two terms as President from 2000-2008, stood down to serve as a Senator from 2008-2012 due to a two-term constitutional limit, before being re-elected again in 2012 and now 2016. His father was also Vice President and President of Palau. Outside Palau, Remengesau is best known for championing environmental causes, including establishing a significant portion of Palau’s territorial waters as a marine sanctuary.

Palau – Women’s Representation and the Presidential Primary

On 29 September, Palau held its presidential primary race to determine which two candidates will face off against each other when the country goes to the polls on 1 November. Four candidates contested the primary election: incumbent President Tommy Remengesau Jr.; incumbent Vice-President Antonio Bells; former Vice-President and incumbent Senator Sandra Pierantozzi; and incumbent Senator Surangel Whipps Jr. In the primary, favourite Remengesau led with 49 per cent of votes cast, followed by Whipps with 39 per cent; Pierantozzi and Bells were eliminated.

With two challengers eliminated, the presidential contest is now between two brothers-in-law, as Whipps is married to Remengeseau’s sister. Remengeseau noted that it was unusual for such close relatives to be contesting against each other: “It’s certainly not in our culture, and it’s very unusual because if you follow our culture you are not supposed to be running against a family member.” Yet, while it may be unusual, it is certainly not unprecedented. Pierantozzi initially won the vice-presidency after contesting against her nephew, and commentator Bernadette Carreon noted its inevitability in small island politics: “It’s a small nation, everyone is related to each other, so I think it’s just the way it is.” Going into the 1 November election having collected around half of the primary votes cast, Remengesau appears the favourite to win.

This year has been a milestone for women’s political representation in Micronesia and the wider Pacific. In January, Hilda Heine of the Marshall Islands became the first female head of government in the Pacific Islands region when she won the presidency. In March, long-serving member of the Samoan Parliament Fiame Naomi Mata’afa became the country’s (and Polynesia’s) first female Deputy Prime Minister. Palau is at the bottom of the world’s league table in terms of women’s representation, with no women in its lower house, although there are three female Senators in its upper house.

The 2016 primary election marked the second attempt at the presidency for Pierantozzi, who came third in the 2012 primary with 18 per cent of the vote. She is a well-known figure in Palauan politics, having previously served as Vice-President from 2001 to 2005. In her 2016 presidential bid, Pierantozzi highlighted economic growth as a key election issue. She also stressed the importance of increasing the number of women in Palau politics. While the presidential election will be an all-male affair – Pierantozzi again came third, although her vote share of 9 per cent was half of what she had received in 2012 – she was hopeful of women’s representation increasing in November in the House and Senate. Women make up a quarter of the 24 candidates contesting for the 13-seat Senate, and among the 33 candidates for the 16 House of Delegates seats, there are six women contesting five seats (including one running unopposed). While the highest glass ceiling for women in Palau won’t be cracked at this election, there is promise that the Senate and House of Delegates contests will result in real gains for women’s representation in the country.

Nauru – Waqa government re-elected

Nauru went to the polls on 9 July and returned Baron Waqa’s government for another term. The Pacific island nation has a population of roughly 10,000 (around 8000 registered voters) who elect 19 MPs for three-year terms from multi-seat constituencies by majority vote. There is no formal party system with parliament effectively made-up of 19 independent members. Because Nauru’s president is both head of government and head of state Waqa was re-elected to the post on the floor of parliament by 16 MPs.

Two election observer teams – one from the Pacific Islands Forum and another from the Commonwealth Secretariat – declared the election free and fair, and commended the high voter turnout. It was reportedly the first time in more than a decade that Nauruan elections had been monitored by international observers.

One reason for the heightened interest is that much of the media discussion in the lead up to the election centred on the creeping authoritarianism of the Waqa government (see this blog). Opposition MPs had previously been suspended from parliament – those under house arrest claimed their campaigning activities were curtailed – media commentary was sanctioned and foreign journalists effectively prohibited from entering the country due to high visa fees, and amendments to the criminal code made expressions of ‘political hatred’ punishable by up to seven years imprisonment. Some candidates had their employment contracts terminated – a move commonly believed to be government initiated. The fee for candidate nomination was also hiked to a level that made it prohibitive for many aspirant politicians. This latter measure was contested in Nauru’s Supreme Court, leading to the government eventually dropping the fee from $2000 to $500 (it had previously been $100).

The government has been quick to claim the result as a ringing endorsement of their record and plan for Nauru’s future. In the aftermath of the result Justice Minister David Adeang accused the international media of beating up the accusations against his government as a means of undermining the operation of the Australian Government’s offshore asylum seeker processing centre currently housed on the island. Three of the MPs who had been suspended from the last parliament – Former President Sprent Dabwido, Squire Jeremiah and Mathew Batsiua – lost their seats. Another, Roland Kun, chose not to stand – he has since been granted a New Zealand passport on humanitarian grounds (his Nauruan passport had previously been confiscated on the grounds that he had taken part in anti-government protests and had spoken out against the government in the international media).

Despite the government’s triumphalist tone, this story has a long way left to run. The Australian Federal Police confirmed a week after the election that they were still investigating Getax, the Australian phosphate dealer at the heart of an alleged political corruption scandal. Having left Nauru, Kun is said to be a key witness in that investigation. Needless to say, this is an interesting time in Nauruan politics.

 

Stewart Firth – Nauru: The Retreat from Democracy and the Coming Election

This is a guest post by Stewart Firth, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University.

Since the election of Nauru’s latest President, Baron Waqa, in 2013, democracy and the rule of law in that country have been under threat. The new government moved quickly to remove key members of the judiciary including the Chief Justice, who was not permitted to re-enter the country after foreign travel. A crackdown on media freedom followed, with foreign journalists effectively excluded by a prohibitive visa fee of US$5,000, and a ban placed on Facebook in order to check criticism of the government. An amendment to the criminal code in 2015 makes the expression of ‘political hatred’, that is to say, disagreement with the government, an offence punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment.

As previously reported on Presidential Power, three opposition MPs were suspended from Parliament for ‘talking too much to foreign media’ and bringing their country into disrepute. Since then a further two opposition MPs in the Parliament of 19 have been permanently suspended, leaving a rump of 12 to conduct Nauru’s business. As the 2016 election approaches, the Nauru government is using Parliament to suppress candidature: public servants must now resign three months before the election, and the fee for standing as a candidate has jumped from US$74 to US$1,500.

This creeping authoritarianism has little to do, however, with the institution of the Presidency in Nauru. The Nauru Presidency is a Westminster phenomenon, and the President resembles a prime minister. Under Article 16, 2 of the Nauru constitution, ‘A person is not qualified to be elected President unless he is a member of Parliament.’ Parliament elects the President of Nauru after each election, he or she sits in a Cabinet that is formed from Parliament and is collectively responsible to it, and may be removed along with other ministers on a vote of no confidence.

What has mattered in recent years in Nauru has been the Cabinet, not the President. In fact most observers think the author of Nauru’s retreat from democracy is not President Waqa but instead his Justice Minister David Adeang. Nauru hosts Australia’s asylum seeker detention centre, and Adeang has seized the opportunity created by Australia’s dependence on his country to amass power and suppress dissent, secure in the knowledge that Canberra will offer little criticism. New Zealand has suspended much of its aid to Nauru in protest. Australia has not.

Wouter Veenendaal – Microstate Foreign Policy: How Much Leeway for Presidents?

This is a guest post by Wouter Veenendaal of the Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde / Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV)

On 18 December 2015, James Alix Michel was reelected as President of Seychelles, defeating his opponent by a razor-thin margin of 0,30 per cent, or 193 votes. Michel’s election victory ensured that the Parti Lepep (People’s Party), which had been in office since its coup d’état of 1977, will remain in power in the archipelago. While multiparty democracy was reinstated in Seychelles in the early 1990s, putting an end to the Marxist single-party regime, the ruling party has won all subsequent elections. It has now been in power for almost 40 years.

Michel’s election victory was contested by the opposition, which cried foul over alleged irregularities. Commonwealth observers, however, noted that the fundamental rights of candidates, political parties, and the electorate had been respected. Regardless of whether the recent Seychellois election was fair or not, the outcome means that no major political changes can be expected in the island archipelago. This is especially true for foreign policy, which, as in other small island states, appears to be largely (pre-) determined by the country’s weakness and relative insignificance within the international system.

As actors in international relations, small states are typically considered to be vulnerable and dependent. Their survival rests on the benevolence of larger states, as a result of which small countries do not have the capacity to develop a foreign policy of their own; they are regarded as mere ‘objects’ in world politics. The extent to which individual leaders in small states can influence the foreign policies of their countries is thus considered to be inherently limited. The case of Seychelles appears to support this view: the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 necessitated a drastic reorientation towards the West, which was entirely motivated by a change in the international system.

In fact, however, the smallest countries in the world (so-called microstates) often act in remarkable and rather exceptional ways in global politics. Together, Caribbean and Pacific island nations for instance constitute the bulk of states that recognize the international sovereignty of Taiwan, and the Pacific microstates of Nauru, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu were among the first and only countries to extend diplomatic recognition to the Caucasian breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Out of the nine states that in 2012 opposed Palestine’s bid to become a United Nations observer state, five were Pacific small island states. How can these foreign policy choices be explained? The answer is: money.

The examples above highlight that microstates often make strategic use of their sovereignty, negotiating their political support in exchange for material gains. In return for diplomatic recognition, Taiwan, for example, develops ICT facilities, provides police cars, or constructs new government buildings in various small island states. As a token for its continuing support for the People’s Republic, in 2008 China, on the other hand, constructed a new parliament building for Seychelles, and recently donated two aircraft to the archipelago. And in exchange for Nauru’s diplomatic recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Russian government bestowed this Pacific island nation with US $31 million in hard cash.

Whereas Seychelles has been steadfast in its support for Beijing, other microstates have occasionally shifted their diplomatic recognition. The Caribbean island nation of St. Lucia, for example, recognized Taiwan between 1984 and 1997, but then withdrew its recognition and established relations with China instead. In 2005, the St. Lucian government decided to reestablish its diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Microstates like St. Lucia thus take part in the so-called two-China game, in which they essentially award their diplomatic support to the highest bidder. Instead of having a passive and submissive role in international politics, these countries therefore actively and successfully make gains by playing off two large powers against each other. The examples also demonstrate that small states often do have a range of foreign policy options to choose from, which supposedly gives more leeway to presidents and political leaders in crafting the foreign policies of their countries.

Another example is provided by the Micronesian island nation of Palau, which became independent from the United States in 1994. A large share of the public finances of Palau is derived from its Compact of Free Association with the United States, and it is hardly a surprise that Palau’s voting behavior in the United Nations General Assembly overlaps by over 97% with that of the US. In addition, in 2009 the Palauan President Johnson Toribiong came to the aid of Washington by agreeing to provide shelter to 19 Uyghurs who had been released from the Guantánamo Bay detention center, and under US law could not be returned to China. In exchange for financial aid, Palau, therefore, willingly plays the role of staunch US ally in the international system.

In addition to the United States, Palau maintains close ties with Taiwan (which provided crucial disaster relief after a typhoon had hit the island) and Japan (which constructed the Japan-Palau friendship bridge between Palau’s two largest islands). Although Palau, in exchange for economic assistance, always supported Japan’s position on whale hunting in international fora, in 2012 President Toribiong suddenly dropped this support, arguing that whaling is incompatible with Palau’s support for nature conservation. In a similar fashion, newly elected Palauan President Remengesau recently made some cautious statements about potential cooperation with China, raising suspicions in Taiwan and the US. These examples demonstrate that political leaders of even the smallest states can and do strategically influence or pressure larger countries.

In an upcoming article in Foreign Policy Analysis, I argue that the international relations between microstates and large powers can, in many ways, be seen as a patron-client linkage, in which political support is exchanged for material gains. Just like clientelism in a domestic context, from a normative perspective such relations can be denounced as opportunistic, immoral, or even corrupt. On the other hand, for microstates these relations offer unique opportunities to make the most of their sovereignty, and to independently position themselves in international affairs. While presidents of small island nations still only have a very limited range of foreign policy options, the presence of multiple potential patron states – and their growing number since the end of the Cold War – does give political leaders of microstates some say about their countries’ foreign relations.

Dr. Wouter Veenendaal is a researcher at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies in Leiden, The Netherlands. His research focuses on politics, democracy, and governance in small states, and he is presently part of a larger academic project that investigates non-sovereign territories in the Caribbean and elsewhere.

Kiribati – New President Taneti Maamau elected

Kiribati went to the polls again last week to elect Taneti Maamau as their new Beretitenti or President. Under the two round runoff electoral system presidential candidates are nominated by members of the Maneaba ni Maungatabu (parliament) and then compete in a nation wide ballot. Maamau ran against two candidates from the ruling Boutokaan Te Koaua (BTK) party, Rimeta Beniamina and Tianeti Ioane, eventually winning more than 20,000 votes. The President of Kiribati is both Head of State and Head of Government.

Maamau is the fifth president of Kiribati since the country became independent in 1979. As outlined previously on this blog, Kiribati’s stability is an anomaly in a region where votes-of-no-confidence regularly topple governments. Constitutional provisions that ensure votes-of-no-confidence automatically trigger full elections are a key reason why this mechanism is rarely used in Kiribati.

Maamau’s election is significant for a number of reasons:

First, it brings an end to 12 years of BTK rule under the leadership of former President, Anote Tong. Tong had served the maximum three terms allowable under the Kiribati constitution. His advocacy work on climate change issues in particular had thrust the tiny island nation into the international spotlight. In recognition of this achievement Tong was recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Second, the new Beretitenti will initially lead a minority coalition of 20 MPs. The BTK Opposition will have 25 MPs. Holding the new government together while attracting disgruntled MPs from the BTK is likely to be a key feature of Maamau’s first year in office. Indeed, the Coalition have expressed their confidence in winning over new members, with former President, Teburoro Tito, telling Radio New Zealand International that:

“We know that we may not work too hard to attract some of these people form the other party because they have already made indications when the election of the speaker was conducted some weeks back. So we think it is not going to be an insurmountable task for us to get numbers on our side.”

Tito’s confidence reflects the high personalised nature of Kiribati politics and the fact that political parties play a minor role in mobilizing voters. In this context being a member of government offers MPs greater access to resources that, if used effectively, can improve their re-election chances.

Third, the new government has been quick to claim a mandate for change. The nature of this change and the means by which it will achieved remains somewhat unclear. At the very least Maamau’s election represents something of a generational shift with the independence generation of politicians being slowly replaced by a new cohort of leaders. Its not that they are all gone – past presidents Tito and Tabai remain in parliament and the former is likely to be a key figure in Maamau’s government despite not holding a ministerial portfolio – but the baton is being passed on. Given the economic and social challenges that confront the island nation this is a sizable responsibility for the new man in charge and his cabinet.

Marshall Islands – Hilda Heine elected as the Pacific region’s first ever female president

A tumultuous week in Marshallese politics ended last Wednesday with the election of the country (and the region’s) first ever female president, Hilda Heine. The machinations that catapulted Heine to the top job began on Tuesday with the ousting of recently elected President, Casten Nemra, who had served only two weeks of his term, the shortest presidency in the history of Marshall Islands, by a successful vote-of-no-confidence. As previously outlined on this blog, votes-of-no-confidence are a common method by which leaders are replaced in the Westminster-inspired legislatures of the Pacific. And, despite holding the title “President” the Marshallese head of state is nonetheless elected from the floor of parliament.

Nemra was a controversial choice by virtue of his being both the youngest ever Marshallese president and only the second elected to the position from a non-chiefly or commoner background. Heine’s election, however, represents a further break from this tradition. Family ties were the key to her victory. In early January Kwajalein Senator and Iroij (chief) Michael Kabua was said to have orchestrated Nemra’s one-vote victory as president. The key to this power play was the defection of the three Heine family members — all cabinet ministers during the past four years — to the opposition.

The Mariana’s Variety describes the machinations that resulted from this in the following terms:

“The Heines’ move to the opposition followed Nemra offering cabinet postings to only two of the three — Hilda and Wilbur, but not Thomas. The trio’s move followed a number of members of an independent group jumping to support Nemra and later receiving cabinet postings in the short-lived government. But when Nemra announced his cabinet at the January 11 swearing-in ceremony, only eight of the 10 members were named, an omission that suggested the difficulties that were to come in the days following. Another first for the government and Nitijela was last Friday’s resignation from the cabinet of Transportation and Communications Minister Mike Halferty, who held the post for just 11 days. In a one-sentence letter of resignation, he told Nemra he was resigning “for political reasons.” Nemra in turn thanked Halferty for his “integrity and decency in writing to me personally” about his resignation. With his cabinet increasingly in tatters, the no-confidence vote was just a matter of time.”

Heine is used to being the first; she is also the first Marshallese to gain a doctorate. Having spent much of her career in education, she was unsuccessful in her initial attempts to gain a seat in the Nitijela but eventually won election in 2011 representing Aur Atoll. She was subsequently made Minister of Education. On Wednesday she was the sole presidential candidate, eventually securing 24 of a possible 33 votes.

As the first woman to be elected head of government to an independent Pacific nation Heine’s rise to power represents an historic moment for the region. Most Pacific Island countries have only a handful of women MPs (some have none at all) giving it the unfortunate tag of the worst region in the world for women’s representation. In the recent Vanuatu election, for example, only eight women stood and none were successful. There have been high profile exceptions to this trend, including Vice President of Palau, Sandra Pierantozzi and Vice President of Kiribati, Teima Onorio. But, none have made it to the top job before Heine.

Ben Graham outlined last month how the Marshall Islands faces considerable development challenges. Addressing these systemic issues whilst maintaining the fluctuating support of the Nitijela will be a difficult balancing act. All of which means that Heine will have her work cut out for her.

Ben Graham – Marshall Islands Elections: Big Turnover, but Bigger Challenges Ahead

This is a guest post by Ben Graham.

National elections in the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) in November delivered unprecedented results, with many of the 33 Nitijela (parliament) members, including some veteran politicians, losing their seats to mostly younger political novices. Unofficial results, which include postal votes from Marshallese in the US, suggest that one-third of Nitijela is out, much higher turnover than in prior elections. Giff Johnson, editor of the Marshall Islands Journal, says that voters were eager for change, with the results signaling a major political shift now underway.

Most of the newcomers are in their 40s and were popular candidates among younger voters, many of whom now use social media to express their views on key issues. The new Nitijela will also have three female members—there has never been more than one.

When it reconvenes in January, the Nitijela’s first order of business will be to select a President from among its members. Several older parliamentarians, including the incumbent President Christopher Loeak, will be jockeying for the post. But with no real political parties, no formal political platforms or agendas, and such a large number of newcomers, it is uncertain who will form the government.

The small country faces very big challenges, with climate change and economic development the most pressing. Made up entirely of low-lying coral atolls and islands, the nation faces the real possibility of extinction—even within several decades—if the worst-case sea-level rise scenarios play out. Economic assistance from the US is decrementing and set to discontinue after 2023, putting pressure on government to grow the economy and mobilize new resources. This is a struggle, despite some growth in revenues from the fishing industry. Government is also trying to accelerate contributions into a trust fund it established with the US in 2004, which should help ease the post-2023 transition, but this too has been difficult given sluggish economic and fiscal conditions.

The challenges go well beyond climate change and economics. Underperformance in healthcare, education, transportation, and environmental management, and weak financial management and control of corruption, altogether highlight the need for more responsive and effective leadership. These were among the key issues surrounding the election.
Meanwhile, thousands of citizens continue to vote with their feet. Slow development progress has led to high outmigration, with entire families reluctantly leaving the islands in search of better schools, healthcare, and jobs in the US. The population has now levelled off at just under 60,000 while around 30,000 now call the US home. The 2011 census showed a clear pattern of depopulation on many atolls.

While a new national development plan and the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals provide some guidance for government, it remains to be seen whether these plans will be effectively implemented, or whether a set-it and forget-it approach (as some locals call it) will prevail. There is some optimism that the new leaders will bring a renewed sense of energy and direction, but this is highly cautious optimism.

One thing is certain: the Marshall Islands’ leaders, old and new, will certainly have their work cut out for them.

Ben Graham is a former consultant and advisor in the Marshall Islands. He is from Majuro Atoll.

Vanuatu – President calls snap election amid bribery scandal

JACK CORBETT & KERRYN BAKER

For the past few months the tiny island nation of Vanuatu has been gripped by a bribery scandal that has ultimately led to 14 of 50 MPs – all from the government side – facing lengthy prison time after being convicted under both the leadership and penal codes (another MP received a suspended jail sentence after pleading guilty). As a result, Vanuatu’s President, Baldwin Lonsdale, has dissolved the country’s parliament and called a snap election. The bribery case revolves around payments made by the Deputy Prime Minister Moana Carcasses to his fellow MPs during 2014, when they were all members of the opposition. Carcasses claimed that the payments were for development purposes but the court decided otherwise.

At the root of this scandal is the perpetual “vote of no-confidence” issue that has bedevilled Pacific Island governments since independence. As previously outlined on this blog, most Pacific Island democracies are renowned for having weak or non-existent party systems. Instead, politicians rise and fall on the strength of their own personal appeal. A number of factors are important for prospective MPs seeking to generate the profile and reputation to win an election in Vanuatu, including family alliances, churches and community involvement. But, increasingly money politics is crucial. As a result, getting elected in Vanuatu can be incredibly expensive.

For prospective Prime Ministers, however, getting elected is just the start. In the absence of strong parties the leader who can cobble together a coalition forms government. Typically, this coalition building process, both in Vanuatu and across the Pacific region sees considerable amounts of money change hands with MPs either recuperating their campaign costs or stockpiling funds for next time around. Once installed, however, coalitions are precarious. The choice of only a few MPs to switch sides can topple a government. Money becomes an important means of inducing MPs to either stay or go.

This game has been going on for years. What makes this case so interesting is that it is the first time these practices have been subject to legal scrutiny. One observer noted: “Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the current case is the fact that it was prosecuted in the first place.” It marked the first occasion that politicians had been tried under the Leadership Code Act. Among the convicted were numerous high-profile figures: several Cabinet Ministers, including the Deputy Prime Minister, as well as the Speaker of the House.

The bribery case and its outcome have also prompted several tests of the limits of presidential power. When the convictions were handed down, President Lonsdale was out of the country; in his absence, the Speaker of the House – one of those convicted – was Acting Head of State, and used the powers granted to him in this position to pardon himself and his 13 co-defendants. These pardons were revoked by Lonsdale, a move that was then appealed, and upheld. Then, on 24 November, Lonsdale dissolved Parliament and called a snap election. The opposition has challenged the legal basis of the dissolution, and this case will be heard in the coming days. Whatever the outcome of this challenge in the courts, what is clear is that the bribery case is a landmark event for Vanuatu. The convictions have sent a clear message to political players and may have long-term ramifications for Vanuatu politics.

Brij V. Lal – Fiji: A new president elected

This is a guest post by Professor Brij V. Lal from the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University

On 12 October 2015, the Fijian parliament elected a new president, Major General Jioji Konrote, over the opposition nominee Ratu Epeli Ganilau, son of Fiji’s first president Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau. Konrote becomes the first non-indigenous Fijian and the first persons of non-chiefly background to occupy that high office. Under Fiji’s 2013 Constitution, the president is the Head of State who exercises ceremonial functions and responsibilities and acts only on the advice of Cabinet or a Minister. Expected to be a person of exemplary character with a record of distinguished service and, at the time of election, without any party political affiliation, the president also acts as the ceremonial commander of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces.

Major General Konrote fits the bill on all these counts. He is a distinguished former military officer, having joined the Royal Fiji Military Forces in 1968, and capping his career as the only Fijian solder so far to act as Force Commander of UNIFIL. Upon retirement, he became the permanent secretary of Home Affairs and Immigration and later Fiji’s High Commissioner to Australia. In 2006, he joined the unequivocally Fijian nationalist party of Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, the Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL), and was appointed Minister of State for Immigration. In the 2014 general elections, he opportunistically changed sides and joined Commodore Frank Bainimarama’s Fiji First Party, SDL successor’s sworn enemy, and was appointed Minister of Employment, Labour Relations and Productivity. Such personal and political contortions are not uncommon in Fiji. Foreign Minister Inoke Kubuabola was a key architect of the 1987 coup but now professes non-racialism.

Konrote’s elevation was as much a surprise as it was controversial. The person most frequently mentioned as the likely government nominee was former high court judge, Fiji’s current ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Nazhat Shameem, but her reputation was judged too compromised by the murky events surrounding the coup of 2006 to command widespread support and respect across the communities, especially among nationalist-minded indigenous Fijians to whom the presence of any Indo-Fijian in a high office is an anathema. It was expected that the President would be a consensus candidate as befitting an office symbolizing the unity of the nation. But Prime Minister Bainimarama is by temperament and inclination not one for consensus politics. Colloquially put, it is either his way or the highway. The National Federation Party, with three members in parliament, abstained from voting in protest against the government’s unilateral decision. Konrote received 31 votes to Ganilau’s 14.

In hindsight, Konrote’s appointment is a safe bet for the Bainimarama government for several reasons. Unlike the person he defeated, Ratu Epeli Ganilau, he does not have an independent political base of his own. Ganilau did, as a scion of the chiefly system, backed by the majority indigenous Fijian political party. It is a strange irony that upon retirement as the commander of the Fijian military in 1999 to join politics, Ganilau had nominated Bainimarama as his successor and had served in his post-2006 coup administration as Minister of Home Affairs. Konrote is from Rotuma, a small island group some 641 kilometres northwest of Fiji which has, despite its tiny size, provided a disproportionate number of senior public figures in Fiji. Paul Manueli was Fiji’s first local commander of the Fiji military. Daniel Fatiaki was Fiji’s chief justice and Visanti Makarava was the head of the now bankrupt National Bank of Fiji. Their success has bred silent resentment among many Fijians.

Konrote is a person of indeterminate, malleable political persuasion, not one with an identifiable political conviction, having served in two bitterly opposed political camps in the span of a few years, one fiercely nationalistic and the other that professes multiracialism. He will be no threat to the government. Konrote’s military background will reassure the military which enjoys a guardian role over the constitution. Former members of the military now occupy some of the most prominent positions in the country, as president, prime minister, several cabinet ministers, permanent heads of departments, and as diplomats. The military now has unprecedented visibility in Fiji’s public life, and the nexus between the military and politics which will only strengthen in years ahead. It is widely believed that Konrote will keep the presidential seat warm until Bainimarama is ready to move up to the Government House after another term or two in parliament.

Bainimarama’s Fiji is a deeply polarized society. The government’s bulldozing approach is deeply resented, and indigenous Fijians feel that their interests and concerns are disregarded. Ganilau was nominated by the opposition following the traditional protocols of consultation with Fiji’s leading Fijian confederacies (traditional power groupings); his defeat will simply serve to reinforce the feeling of marginalization and exclusion. President Jioji Konrote, who will take office in November upon the retirement of the incumbent, Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, has a tough road ahead of him, fulfilling his constitutionally prescribed roles and healing the self-inflicted wounds in his country