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

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