JENNY HAYWARD-JONES | The Interpreter (Lowy Institute)
FIJI'S MILITARY LEADER, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, has done it again.
He surprised everyone last year by opening up what appeared to be a genuine process of consultation on a new Fiji constitution and engaging Professor Yash Ghai, one of the world's foremost constitutional experts, to chair the Constitutional Commission and draft the constitution. Fiji seemed finally to be making progress on its path back to democracy.
Then, late last week, Bainimarama, aided by Fiji President Nailatikau, pronounced that the regime had serious concerns with the draft produced by the Commission and would be redrafting it before passing it to a Constituent Assembly (a body of distinguished Fiji citizens from representative civil society groups, to be chosen by the PM and chaired by the PM's appointee, which by decree will discuss, modify and adopt the draft constitution for presentation to the president) for consideration.
This announcement was the culmination of a campaign from the Fiji regime to distance itself from the Commission it had itself established, which begs the question of why the regime bothered with the expense and effort of engaging international expertise, attracting support from donors and seeking the views of the people if it intended not to respect the process.
Bainimarama could have made his concerns about the draft constitution known to his hand-picked Constituent Assembly and allowed its debate and advice to decide the amendments. But that strategy would have risked Bainimarama being seen to reject the advice of a group of eminent Fiji citizens which he had appointed to advise him.
Far easier to act now and reject emphatically the work of a foreigner, even if this puts Bainimarama offside again with countries like Australia and New Zealand.
This is a disappointing move, as the Constituent Assembly may well have made amendments that satisfied the Government; a final document would then have been seen to be the result of a democratic process of sorts, rather than the outcome of aggressive intervention by Bainimarama.
It is difficult now to see how the Constituent Assembly, even if it has a fair representation, will have a reasonable opportunity to provide independent advice on the new constitution. It seems likely it will be hounded into rubber stamping the regime's new draft, with only a month promised for consideration.
In his address, President Nailatikau said Fiji could not 'allow unelected people to make decisions for the rest of the general public in the new parliamentary system' and that Fiji could not 'allow elitism to take place'.
That he could say this while Fiji's unelected leader and the commander of the military, the country's most important elite, was standing beside him is extraordinary. This is unlikely to be lost on the Fiji people.
But it is not possible to expunge from public consciousness the work of Yash Ghai and the Constitutional Commission or the detailed consultations that led to the production of the draft. There were over 7000 submissions to the Commission. The people of Fiji who contributed to the consultations, participated in debate and read the draft constitution now have a taste again for what it means to participate in a democracy.
If the eventual constitution or future system of government does not give them a voice or trashes the ambitions they had proposed for their new constitution, they are unlikely to be happy about it.
The publicity generated by this stoush will also give the Fiji people the opportunity to compare the Commission's draft constitution with the document eventually produced by the Bainimarama regime. They can make their own minds up about the regime's credibility and its plans for Fiji.
Despite this setback, international actors including Australia should continue to press for progress in re-establishing democracy in Fiji and engage where they can to maintain momentum in the process. New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully has criticised Bainimarama's decision as a 'backward step of some proportions'.
The process will very likely continue to involve backward steps, but the forward steps (as long as there are some) still need to be encouraged.
Fiji may end up with a flawed democracy but it wouldn't be the first flawed democracy to participate in international forums and enjoy stable diplomatic relations with the world's powers.
Many flawed democracies have improved over time and even though Fiji has a way to go, there has at least been a public discussion about the future, which cannot be undone.