Democracy returns to Fiji: But what of the presidency?

Earlier this month the President of Fiji, Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, opened Parliament for the first time since 2006. [i] The return of democracy in Fiji is potentially an historic moment for a country whose post-independence government has been punctuated by successive coups in 1987, 2000 and most recently 2006. The election itself was a one-sided affair with coup leader, Rear Admiral Frank Bainimarama (retired), receiving around 60% of the vote, which included 80% of the Indo-Fijian population and 40% of the Indigenous-Fijian population, thus allowing him to claim democratic legitimacy (and international recognition) for the continuation of his reform agenda (more commentary on the elections can be found here, here and here). His Fiji First party have formed government with him as the Prime Minister. But what of the presidency?

The presidency of Fiji is itself the product of a coup. Like many former British colonies, Fiji’s post-independence Head of State was the Queen’s representative. But, when Fiji became a republic in October 1987 the Office of the Governor-General was replaced by the Office of the President, with the incumbent, Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau, installed as the first President. The role has since been retained under successive constitutions.

Under the 1990 constitution, the President was appointed by the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC), a non-elected body, for a five-year period, and was accountable to them only. In a country that has long been divided along racial lines – Indigenous Fijian and Indo-Fijian – the GCC was often regarded as a bastion of Indigenous Fijian authority (Bainimarama would abolish it in 2009). The President had considerable powers, including over appointments to the Senate and senior designated positions in the civil service. He (so far the position has been exclusively held by men) or she could also suspend the constitution and the civil liberties of individuals in certain circumstances.

Some of these features were retained under the 1997 constitution. The President remained an appointment of the GCC but the Office became answerable to Cabinet. Five-year terms remained but a maximum two-term limit was imposed and the Office of the Vice President created. The President retained considerable powers in relation to appointments. This is significant because one of the most controversial features of the 1997 constitution was the provision for a multi-party power sharing Cabinet.

In practical terms, it was understood that the position of Head of State, be it Governor-General or President, would be circulated among leaders of the three Indigenous-Fijian confederacies, thus the first Governor-General, Ratu George Cakobau, was from Kabuna, his successor, the aforementioned Ratu Ganilau, was from Tovata, as we his immediate successor Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. Upon his death in 2004 Ratu Josefa Iloilo from Burebasaga succeeded him. But now that the GCC has been abolished, that pattern seems unlikely to persist.

The current constitution envisages a different role for the President. As before, the President is required to address the opening of parliament and outline the policies and programmes of the Government. In his inaugural address, Ratu Nailatikau outlined an ambitious agenda based on the Fiji First election manifesto. However, the position is now elected by the parliament. The length of office has also been reduced to three years (the maximum two-term limit remains). The vice presidency has also been abolished with the Chief Justice acting out the role in the absence of the President.

How this shapes the practice of politics in the new era of Fijian democracy remains to be seen. The Head of State has always essentially been a ceremonial office but the 2013 constitution gives the Fiji Military Forces a guardian role over the constitution. As such, the President’s powers are curtailed to the extent that he or she can only act on the advice of the elected government.

[i] Special thanks to Brij Lal for his comments on this month’s post.

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