Thursday, September 4, 2014
Fiji’s Elections 2014: From “Fiji for Fijians” to “We are all Fijians”
The use of the term “Fijian” as a label for national identification remains a significant ideological frame in the run up for elections to be held on September 17, 2014.
By ideological frame, I refer to the fact that phrase “We are all Fijians” is represented by an array of inter-related set of stories, symbols, images, as well as rhetoric in an attempt to define and provide reasons as to why the public should or should not vote for a political party. This ideology is represented as the highest maxim of social equality. It is used to justify, maintain, and increase popular support for the Fiji First Party.
This is visible in the media, where political candidates are often asked to take a position on this issue. The premise is that if we know the candidate’s position on this, we will know their core political values and vision for Fiji. Those who are hesitant to support ‘Fijian’ as a common-term or ‘national identity’ are explicitly and implicitly cued to be proponents of disunity and inequality.
Fiji or Viti
It is said that when the Europeans had asked the Tongans for the name of islands we now know as Fiji, they provided them with the term Viti. It follows that the terms ‘Fiji’ and ‘Fijian’ arose out of a mispronunciation of the word Viti. Colonialism inaugurated the emergence of a collective ‘Fijian race’ or the Taukei Kei Viti or Kai Viti, which loosely translates into ‘the owners of Fiji land’ and ‘persons from Fiji’ respectively. Prior to this, identification was primarily based on one’s birth and kinship connections in a vanua or mataqali among distinct communities/confederacies and not as a collective ‘Fijian race’.
There were diverse pronunciations and spellings of Fiji such as “Beetee, Fegee, Fejee, Fidjee, Fidje, Fidgee, Fidschi, Fiji, Feigee, Vihi, Viji, and Viti” (Williams& Calvert, 1859, p. 1). However, Fiji and Fijian became commonly labels used in the colonial state to refer to the land and the ‘natives’.
Coups and Fiji for Fijians
These labels “Fiji/Fijian” are not in themselves the problem or the solution to ethnic-relations in Fiji. The problem is the actions of elitist alliances and the practice of racial ethno-nationalism which have instilled divisive values and practices to these classifications. Colonial policy and the coup makers through their use of these categories have established the social boundaries between the two ‘races’. To the Fijians, the Indians were to be known as the vulagi (foreigner). To the Indians, the Fijians were to be known as the jungalis (jungle people). This is not to say that there are no cultural differences between the two but that the state plays a crucial role in how these differences are viewed, expressed, and lived.
Support for the 1987 and 2000 coup was summoned precisely on a form of oppositional categorization from the colonial period. It featured arguments to ‘protect’ the taukei (owners of the land), lotu (Christian religious beliefs), and the vanua (land and groupings), which were supposedly endangered. The mobilizing theme was the protection of Fijian interests with “Fiji for Fijians” as a rallying motto.
We Are All Fijians
Unlike the previous coups in 1987 and 2000 which were executed under the ideological banner of “Fiji for Fijians”, Bainimarama has been able to popularize the idea that his governance represents democracy with the motto “We are all Fijians” and “Fiji for all Fijians”. Bainimarama, who was the commander of the Fijian army at the time, accused the Quarse government of election fraud and took control of government in 2006.
Since then, Bainimarama has conducted a widespread media campaign that emphasizes “We are all Fijians”. In 2010, he issued a decree stating that the indigenous peoples should be officially known as the iTaukei and that all other citizens should be known as Fijians. He also issued many other decrees proclaiming that his actions are in the best interest of all citizens, such as dismantling the Great Council of Chiefs. The “We are all Fijians” has become the common-sense lens from which to positively interpret and justify past and future actions of the Bainimarama regime.
The issue of a common-name is linked to the efforts of the National Federation Party (NFP) which was the first party to advocate for a common-roll and a common name for citizens prior to Fiji’s independence. However, at the time, Fijian politicians and intellectuals argued that such actions would be disastrous for Fijian identity and culture. Therefore, such proposals were never approved.
Bainimarama has been able to re-articulate this ideology at a time when no other message would have worked in his favor. He could not rely on the ideology of Fijian paramountcy (‘Fiji for Fijians’) because this was what the Quarse government was employing. Quarse was implementing policies which were designed to establish the dominance of Fijians in areas such as the economy, education, and the public service. Bainimarama employed the ideology of ‘ending racism’ and of ‘moving Fiji forward’ to gain local and international support for his dismissal of Quarse, whom he had originally appointed after the 2000 coup.
Through this re-articulated ideology, Bainimarama has sought to downplay the fact that he came to power illegally, that he has violated the constitution, and that he has been unaccountable over the years (e.g. why will the Auditor General Reports be issued until after the elections?). He has been able to do this because he commanded the military and because he is phenotypically Fijian. The ideology of “We are all Fijians” is the emotional and symbolic glue which holds the Bainimarama regime together. It has resounded with approval among some segments of populace including key public figures as it represents the idea of civic equality and nationality unity.
In March of this year, Bainimarama announced the formation of his political party called the “Fiji First Party”, a name which was designed to promote this ideological theme. His initial 2006 promise to have returned to the barracks after establishing mechanisms for a stable democracy has now been pushed aside. He now aims to gain official support for his governance in the run up for elections. He has exercised several key social reforms and media campaigns to this end: free education policy; reform of scholarship scheme to be based on merit; rural development projects; creation of a new constitution, and appears to have de-facto control of Fiji’s mainstream media.
We Are All Fijians, But Who Are You
The counter ideological frames of the other parties contesting election are based on human rights and liberal democratic discourses. They argue that the Bainimarama regime has proven to be unaccountable, unjust, and undemocratic.
For instance, the Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA) argues that Bainimarama’s imposition of a common-name is against the indigenous rights and culture. They hold that ‘Fijian’ must be the official name for the indigenous peoples. This argument bears the traces of the ‘Fiji for Fijians’ ideology as it merges past members and support from the pro-indigenous campaign of the Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL) party, founded by Quarse in 2001. It supplements its ideological power by calling on the international convention of indigenous rights which asserts the right of indigenous people to protect their ‘identity’. Their ideological goal is to ‘reclaim’ Fijian cultural institutions and democracy. In this regard, this ideological frame is geared towards gaining massive Fijian support.
Another major party contesting the elections is the National Federation Party (NFP). And while it is likely that the NFP remains committed to idea that ‘Fijian’ is the best common name for civic unity, given the political situation, they have chosen to inform the public that this should be done through democratic process and not by a military regime. They argue that the regime had no legal democratic authority to employ this term for the citizenry. They prefer to take the matter up for public consultation which demonstrates its respect for law in a democracy and their empathy to dialogue with the indigenous peoples. This underscores NFP ideological frame of liberal democracy, equality and respect to all the citizens and in so doing encourage voters to support them and not Fiji First which has been a dictatorship.
The NFP in my opinion is the best of the political parties. Their track record shows that they have always argued for equal representation, respect and compromise with the indigenous community, and would properly lead Fiji towards democratic stability and sound economic growth.
However, there is a need for the FNP to insert themselves more radically in the “We are Fijians” ideology. “We are Fijians” must be dis-articulated and re-articulated in ways which demonstrate their commitment to equality, national unity, and gain popular support. They should emphasize the fact that by and large the populace continues to use the terms like Indians and Fijians in the everyday life, and that it is okay to use Fijian as a marker of national collectivity as well as a marker to refer to the indigenous people. They should also devise strategies which can build on the desire for national unity in more creative ways. For example, they may pledge to have a day of national inter-cultural festivities, which will exhibit shared and unique cultural practices from all of Fiji cultures not just Indian and Fijian cultures. They should organize a group of singers or actors from diverse ethnic backgrounds to create songs and dramas for their campaign. They may also consider a proposition to modify the constitution to insert a clause which declares Fiji a multi-religious state versus a secular state. In order words, they must present themselves with a more impressive strategy and symbols of national unity than the Bainimarama’s “We are Fijians” campaign.
It would appear that Bainimarama has been successful in the public sphere as far as this ideological device of “We are all Fijians” is concerned. Journalists and the media in general have consistently disapproved of any politician who disagrees with the use of Fijian as a common label. Those who disagree with Bainimarama’s “We are all Fijians” are casted as promoters of racial division and ‘returning Fiji to the politics of old times’.
There are no guarantees that the policies of the Bainimarama government which one may interpret as progressive will in effect create a stable multicultural Fiji. The regime’s hegemonic governance has come at the cost of media censorship, unaccounted economic practices, political corruption, and human rights violations as documented by the alternative media and civil society reports. The illegal actions of Bainimarama are overlooked by Fiji First supporters who encourage the public to realize that the nation has finally achieved a ‘national identity’ and to observe the infrastructure development taking place (never mind its unsustainability).
For some of the populace, the ideology of “We are all Fijians” is a positive step towards national unity. For others, it is as a threat to Fijian identity. And still for others, it is an illegal change with no material rewards. Going into the election, political mobilization will depend on which party can create a positive and dominant ideological representation of their party. So far Fiji First appears to have the upper hand because it has dominated the public sphere and has complemented this ideology with recent infrastructure development. For better or for worst, the “We are all Fijians” moto has a wide appeal and I wouldn’t be surprise if Bainimarama wins the election. But I also wouldn’t be happy; … maybe I’ll be content, but not happy.
By Rolando Cocom