Republic of Fiji country brief
The Republic of the Fiji Islands is a group of 800 volcanic and coral islands covering 18,376 sq. km. It has a total population of 858,000 (UN estimate, 2012; the last census was 2007). Fiji's capital is Suva. Its major languages are English, Fijian and Hindi and its major religions are Christianity, Hinduism and Islam.
Fiji became independent in 1970 after nearly a century as a British colony. On independence, Fiji adopted a constitutional democratic form of government based on the Westminster model.
Democratic rule was interrupted by two military coups in 1987 led by then Lieutenant Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka. Rabuka abrogated the 1970 Constitution and declared Fiji a republic. A short period of military government and two subsequent interim administrations followed and a new constitution was promulgated on 25 July 1990, with elections held in May 1992. Subsequently, after extensive consultations, a new Constitution was adopted in 1997.
Fiji suffered another period of political, social and economic instability beginning on 19 May 2000, when a group led by George Speight seized control of the Parliament and took hostage then Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and members of his government, holding them for 56 days. In the following months, the 1997 Constitution was abrogated, the President stepped down and three successive unelected interim administrations were in power.
In 2001, the Fiji High Court and Court of Appeal ruled that the 1997 Constitution remained valid. General elections were held in August 2001 and Fiji returned to parliamentary democracy under Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, who had led the caretaker and interim governments for the Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL) Party. Prime Minister Qarase's SDL Government was returned to office with a narrow majority at the elections held in May 2006.
Prime Minister Qarase was ousted in a military coup on 5 December 2006 led by Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama. Bainimarama dismissed the democratically-elected Qarase government and declared a state of emergency. He subsequently claimed to have returned executive authority to the President, who then appointed Bainimarama 'interim Prime Minister'.
On 9 April 2009, the Fiji High Court found that Qarase's dismissal and Bainimarama's appointment had been illegal. In response, on 10 April 2009 Fiji President Ratu Josefa Iloilo announced that he had abrogated Fiji's 1997 Constitution. He declared himself Head of State and said that Fiji would be ruled under a New Legal Order. The 1997 constitution was abrogated, all judicial appointments were revoked and Public Emergency Regulations (PERs) were imposed. President Iloilo subsequently reappointed interim Prime Minister Commodore Bainimarama and all nine members of the previous Interim Cabinet. The interim Government has said that elections would be held by 30 September 2014.
Pacific Islands Forum Leaders decided on 2 May 2009 to suspend Fiji from the Forum until Fiji returns to democracy. In their Communique from the Pacific Islands Forum held in Majuro in September 2013, Leaders pointed to the Forum’s ongoing work to encourage and support Fiji’s return to parliamentary democracy, noting the expectations of the people of Fiji and the international community for free and fair elections achieved through: a constitution that credibly reflects public views; an independent elections oversight mechanism; free and fair participation by political parties in the electoral process with fair and timely registration; independent election monitoring; freedom of expression, media and assembly in election preparations; and a general acceptance of the election outcome by the people of Fiji.
Fiji was suspended from the Commonwealth in September 2009.
In May 2013, four opposition political parties were registered under the Political Parties Decree to contest the 2014 elections: SODELPA; the Fiji Labour Party; the People’s Democratic Party and the National Federation Party. All parties are participating in political processes and intend to contest elections. The interim Prime Minister has announced he intends to register a political party in 2014.
On 1 July 2009, interim Prime Minister Bainimarama announced Fiji's strategic framework for change, the 'roadmap'. He announced that work on a new constitution for Fiji would begin in September 2012 and would be completed a year before elections in September 2014.
The Public Order (Amendment) Decree provided powers for: the control of persons; to detain and arrest; to disperse assemblies (which are prohibited).
The regime lifted the PERs in January 2012 to allow discussion ahead of the constitution, but these were replaced by the Public Order (Amendment) Decree, which reintroduced key provisions of the PERs, including the control of persons, power to detain and arrest, and prohibition and dispersal of assemblies.
On 9 March 2012, interim Prime Minister Bainimarama announced that a regime appointed Constitutional Commission would conduct public consultations before drafting a constitution, which would then be submitted to a Constituent Assembly for consideration.
The Constitutional Commission, chaired by internationally respected expert Professor Yash Ghai, presented a draft constitution to Fiji President Nailatikau on 21 December 2012. The draft was not officially released to the public after police confiscated all (599) printed copies on 20 December 2012 and burned the printing proofs in front of Professor Ghai on 22 December 2012. The leaked draft was publicly welcomed by opposition parties. On 10 January 2013, Prime Minister Bainimarama and President Nailatikau said the Fiji Government would prepare its own draft constitution to be considered by the Constituent Assembly, drawing on the 'Ghai draft'.
Interim Prime Minister Bainimarama announced on 21 March 2013 a further modification of the constitutional process. The draft constitution would no longer be debated by a Constituent Assembly, but was open for public comment until end-April 2013.
The interim government then considered the comments received and translated the draft into Hindi and Fijian, releasing an amended version on 22 August for promulgation on 6 September 2013.
Key features of the new constitution are:
- provision for a single chamber 50-member Parliament, which will be elected on the basis of one person, one vote using a proportional representation system
- Elections are to be held every four years, with the interim government reiterating its promise to hold elections by 30 September 2014
- Every Fijian over the age of 18 is entitled to vote
- Individual regional constituencies are abolished. There will be one national constituency covering the whole of Fiji
- A Prime Minister who commands the party with the most seats in Parliament will head the elected Government and a President will be the Head of State and perform the ceremonial function of Commander in Chief of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces
- Land rights for traditional Fiji ‘i-Taukei’ lands has been included in response to public submissions during the consultation process in April 2013
- Immunity is provided to the military for actions since 1987, and immunity for public officials from December 2006
The 2006 coup, like its predecessors, has had significant economic consequences for Fiji and for the living standards of its people. The uncertain political and economic climate has impacted negatively on both local and foreign investor sentiment. The interim government continues to interfere in the economy, including through the appointment of military figures and regime supporters to senior board positions, and by imposing an unpredictable regulatory environment which has impacted on the cost of doing business.
Economic growth is likely to increase to around 2.5 to 3 per cent in 2013 on the back of strong consumption. Since the 2006 coup, Fiji's economy has been stagnant with an annual growth rate of just 0.7 per cent (compared to 2.5% growth in the years preceding the coup). It is only in the last two years that the economy has started to show signs of recovery
Sugar is Fiji's largest export industry. Already struggling, in large part because of inefficient mills and lack of resolution of the land lease system, the sugar industry suffered significant infrastructure damage and lost production during several recent natural disasters. The industry continues to struggle and even with land reforms and investment the increasingly unprofitable nature of the industry will be hard to counter.
Australia and Fiji have long-standing strong commercial and people-to-people links. Up to 50,000 Fijians live and work in Australia and approximately 300,000 Australians visit Fiji each year. Australia is Fiji's key trading and commercial partner in the region and is the largest foreign investor in Fiji. Two-way trade is worth over AUD1.8 billion annually and, in 2011, Australia was Fiji's largest export destination and second largest source of imports.
Fiji continues to benefit from privileged access to Australian markets. The Australian Government has extended the SPARTECA-TCF scheme to December 2014, which facilitates duty free access to Australia for textiles, clothing and footwear products manufactured in Forum Island Countries. Extension of the scheme will provide some assistance to companies as they adjust to the competitive international trade environment.
Australian companies continue to seek out business opportunities in Fiji. The Australian Government, through Austrade, continues to help Australian companies to maximise business opportunities in Fiji.
Australia's response to the 2006 coup
The Australian Government strongly condemned the abrogation of Fiji's Constitution and the military's unconstitutional removal of Fiji's elected government in 2006. The United Nations Security Council, the Commonwealth Secretary General and the United Nations Secretary General have all called for a prompt return to constitutional democracy in Fiji and a respect for the values of free speech, human rights and the rule of law which underpin it.
In response to the 2006 coup, Australia imposed travel restrictions on Bainimarama, his supporters and their families. These restrictions apply to some members of the interim Government; all military officers and some family members of military officers. The Australian Government implements these travel sanctions flexibly, granting exceptions on humanitarian and compassionate grounds (for example, for medical treatment or to provide support to a family member for medical or other reasons), and in other circumstances on a case-by-case basis.
Since 2006, defence cooperation with the interim Government has been suspended.
In response to the interim government's announcement of constitutional consultations, the former Australian Foreign Minister met his Fiji counterpart on several occasions to discuss developments in Fiji and reaffirm Australia's commitment to helping Fiji return to democracy.
At a trilateral Australia, Fiji, New Zealand foreign ministers' meeting in July 2012, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji agreed to reinstate High Commissioners in our capitals.
Australia is helping Fiji return to democracy and the rule of law. We have provided $2.65 million to support Fiji's constitutional and electoral processes, including supporting electronic voter registration and civil education programs. Australia funded members of Fiji’s registered political parties taking part in a regional Political Parties workshop managed by the Centre for Democratic Institutions in May 2013. Two senior officials from the Fiji Elections Office participated in the Australian Electoral Commission’s Elections Visitor Program in September 2013. Two Australian Civilian Corps experts will soon deploy to Fiji to assist the Fiji elections office with capacity building.
Australia is Fiji’s largest bilateral aid donor. Development assistance focuses on improving access to quality education; strengthening primary health services; building resilience and economic opportunities in disadvantaged communities; and supporting Fiji’s transition to democracy.
Australia is assisting Fiji to return to democracy, providing $2.65 million in 2012 for voter registration (enabling over 530,000 of an estimated 600,000 voters to be registered) and civic education, and will provide further assistance, in consultation with Fiji and other donors.
Australia participates in a Suva-based donors’ group to coordinate election-related assistance with the Fijian authorities and avoid duplication.
Updated January 2014