Island News

A facade of democracy?

Written By : Padmini Gaunder INDIAN WEEKENDER. The Late professor Asesela Ravuvu, writing about Fiji, claimed that what Fiji had after it became Independent was a ‘façade of democracy’. Others
11 Dec 2010 12:00

image Written By : Padmini Gaunder INDIAN WEEKENDER. The Late professor Asesela Ravuvu, writing about Fiji, claimed that what Fiji had after it became Independent was a ‘façade of democracy’.
Others like Stephanie Lawson after him have also used the phrase but while they agree on the term the reasons they have in mind for saying it was a façade are not only different; in fact, they are opposed to Prof Ravuvu’s reasons.
An Indian scholar who was not a supporter of the Alliance government under Ratu Mara which ruled from 1970 to 1987 noted that for the local people Fiji was not a paradise as the tourist brochures claimed but until 1987 it was a homeland where “they could go about their daily chores in peace and without feelings of insecurity and fear of discrimination” (Naidu, V, 1988). This showed that it was much more than a façade of democracy.
Some say there was no democracy because there was no change of government. The reason for not having a change of government was that the opposition National Federation Party failed to attract enough Fijian votes, as the NFP, after the death of its founder leader AD Patel, became reduced to an ethnic Indian party.
Under Patel, though the NFP had little non-Indian support, it was not an Indian party because its policies were not for just one ethnic group.
It was against colonialism and exploitation and worked to help people who were being exploited. It fought against the CSR Company and so its power base became the sugarcane farmers who were being exploited by the CSR. Since the sugarcane farmers were almost exclusively Indians it had very little support from non-Indians.
In 1968 NFP looked at the plight of the mineworkers at Vatukoula. Since his fight for the sugarcane farmers was coming to a successful end Patel was looking at other people who were facing exploitation and he had identified the mineworkers.
He had decided on taking up the fight for the exploited workers at Vatukoula who were mainly i-Taukei. This featured in the manifesto of the NFP in its 1968 by-election. Unfortunately Patel died in 1969 and his successor, Siddiq Koya, was not interested in the mineworkers or in stopping exploitation that was still going on. Koya considered being the leader of the opposition as a part time job.
Most of the time he was not in parliament as he was busy with his law practice. He had no policies for his party. There were no debates over issues in parliament. For example, when government announced its education policies for integrating the nation and wiping out inequalities they were accepted without a murmur. But when elections came the same policies were attacked.
The Westminster system still worked in the early years because there were those from Patel’s time like RD Patel, KC Ramrakha and Mrs. Jai Narayan who were in Parliament. I remember a radio debate before the 1972 general elections (there was no television then) between Ramrakha and Vijay (later Sir Vijay) Singh of the Alliance. I still remember some of their arguments and counter arguments as they were well-matched and did not touch on race or issues that affected only one race.
At election times Koya focused on what was attractive to the Indians and that was the beginning of the change of the NFP. But it was gradual so hardly anyone seemed to have noticed it. In 1975 R. D. Patel resigned from the party saying that it had changed beyond recognition from what it was under AD Patel.
The following year there was a split in the party about the leases for sugarcane farmers. Under the new Ordinance, which needed a two third majority in Parliament, farmers were to be given thirty-year leases. Koya opposed it saying that it was not long enough while the others felt it was an improvement on the existing ten-year leases. In 1977 there was a change in leadership but the problem was that the party no longer had any policies.
Colonialism was over and so was exploitation of the sugarcane farmers. Stopping the exploitation of the mineworkers was what Patel had in mind next but after Patel’s death the mineworkers were forgotten. Since the party had no concrete policies the difference between the two major parties became reduced to ethnicity.
The hope at independence was that schools would become multiracial and a new generation of voters would emerge who would have their primary loyalty to the nation and not to their ethnic group.
The Alliance policies, if they had been implemented properly, would have wiped out communalism from schools (with the government takeover of schools run by communal agencies) and it would have produced a new generation of voters who were brought up in multiracial schools and spoke i-Taukei and Hindi.
There was also hope that the union movement, which had emerged without ethnic divisions, would also help the country become truly democratic as the unions brought the workers of all races together and they would support a party that is pro-worker rather than looking at ethnicity.
The i-Taukei were given the franchise only in 1963 so democracy was new to them and they were not for it.
The majority of them had wanted colonialism to continue until they were ready to take back the country that they had ceded to Queen Victoria. Then they wanted it to be given back to the chiefs who had ceded it.
They reluctantly agreed to independence when their chiefs persuaded them to accept it. So they needed time to get used to the idea of an elected government.
Meanwhile they were happy that the Alliance led by their chiefs was ruling the country because the chiefly system was their ‘cultural capital’ (Norton, 1990). However, Butadroka and his Fijian Nationalist Party tried to warn the common i-Taukeis against the Alliance Party’s multiracial policies, which they claimed worked against the i-Taukei.
But Butadroka and his Nationalists could have been overcome if the NFP had supported the Alliance in implementing its multiracial policies. Instead the NFP supported the Nationalists at election times against the Alliance.
In 1977 when the chiefly led Alliance Party lost the election to the NFP the Fijians were convinced that the majority rule worked against them.
So it was important to tread carefully and build up their faith in democracy.
NFP was careful and hesitated to assume power and in the next elections a few months later i-Taukeis who had earlier supported the Nationalists voted for the Alliance Party and it won again. But their suspicion of Alliance’s multiracial policies and where that would lead them remained. Meanwhile the chiefly system remained their ‘cultural capital’ and criticism of their chiefs before the 1982 elections incensed them.
The absence of a strong opposition in the 1980s led to the emergence of the Fiji Labour Party. If the FLP had become an effective opposition for even a term, they might have been able to form the government without being seen as an ethnic party and make the Westminster system work.
However, when it went into a coalition with the NFP before the 1987 general elections it modified/abandoned some of its policies. As a result, many of the Fijian members left the FLP. In the 1987 elections less than ten percent of Fijians supported the NFP- FLP Coalition. So again the difference between the two major parties became ethnicity and the Fijians saw it as a victory of the Indians over them.
Now they had no doubt at all that democracy worked against them.
Until 1987 Fiji had democracy (not just a façade) as the people enjoyed all the freedoms.
They lived without any fear of being harassed or discriminated.
What was a façade was the Westminster system.


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