Dictator poses as just another candidate
OPINION: Tomorrow Fiji has an election for the first time in eight years. Because the country has been under a military dictatorship for all that time, the world will be watching the conduct of the poll.
Frank Bainimarama, the thug who stole Fijian democracy and appointed himself prime minister, now promises to be good. He has resigned his military post and likes to pose as just another political candidate.
International observers won’t tell us till after the election whether it was free and fair, and until then we should assume nothing. However, the observers might well find that there were no obvious scams: no ballot-stuffing, no outright intimidation at the voting booth, no attempt to stop people voting.
And, in fact, it is in Bainimarama’s interests to ensure that no such shenanigans take place. He more than anyone else knows that bullying and intimidation would make him and his election a laughing stock, and his attempt to turn himself into a respectable politician would have failed. What he needs is a scandal-free election that will return him to power via the ballot box. Right now, that is a reasonable possibility. And this shows the problems associated with trying to restore democracy after a long period of dictatorship. Holding a “free and fair” election is an absolute necessity, and the world can hardly object if Bainimarama is elected as a result. But let’s not think that such an election operates on a level playing field.
Bainimarama’s regime flouted human rights, bullied and intimidated opponents, and tried to suppress the free media. It expelled troublesome journalists and bullied those who remained. The result was the media was not free and the coverage of politics was weighted in favour of the regime. None of this changes just because some of the most flagrant abuses were lifted a few months before the election. The effect of dictatorship does not disappear the moment the dictator resigns his commission and stops calling himself the prime minister.
Bainimarama has had years of dictatorial rule with a largely compliant press and a cowed opposition. He has been busy spending money to gain support. His brutal rule has, of course, appealed to people who care far more about personal security and crime than democracy. So he has used his powers to tilt the playing field – and now he stands to benefit.
The latest poll showed that he and his party have 49 per cent support rather than the 60 per cent shown previously. This might indicate that despite all the advantages of dictatorship, he might have to form a coalition government. He has already said he doesn’t want to do this. Dictators, after all, are used to having their own way. They don’t like the idea of having to negotiate. His powers might be hedged.
So he might gain enough votes to lead a government but he might not have everything his own way. Those who hope for a real democracy in Fiji should not despair. Perhaps after a few years the voters will see there are alternative leaders who are far less repellent than Bainimarama.
– The Dominion Post