The Paradox of Fiji’s Race Politics
FIJI’s contemporary politics has always been laced with racial overtones, even in the midst of the current Fiji First Party-led government’s attempts to erase race from Fijians’ political consciousness.
The country’s two dominant racial groups, the iTaukei and Indo-Fijians have been central to political discussions in this country since independence.
This, along with other issues, has contributed to the four coups of 1987, 2000 and 2006.
The racialization of Fiji’s politics has its roots in the British colonial administration’s recruitment of Indian labors in the mid-1800s and early 1900s, its policies that created two racial groups that lived parallel with each other but hardly intersecting, and post-independence government policies and institutions that perpetuated racial divisions.
Since his ascend to power, following the 2006 coup, Fiji’s current prime minister, Voreqe Bainimarama, took upon himself to erase race from the country’s political landscape.
In 2009, Bainimara told The Australian that his, “vision for Fiji is one that’s free of racism. That’s the biggest problem we’ve had in the last 20 years and it needs to be taken out.”
He went on to blame indigenous Fijian chiefs and politicians for the racism: “It’s the lies that are being fed to indigenous Fijians that are causing this, especially from our chiefs who are the dominating factor in our lives. And the politicians take advantage of that. We need to change direction in a dramatic way.”
Bainimarama’s idea was to build an inclusive Fijian society – one that includes, values and provides security for all its people: iTaukei, Indo-Fijians, kailoma, Rotumans, kaivalagi, etc.
This seems like a noble ideal and attracted the support of many Fijians who were tired of coups, racialized politics, and the overburdening power of Ratus.
So, when Bainimarama was elected as prime minister, following the 2014 election, he and his trusted political engineer, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, set out to institutionalize the eraser of race from Fiji’s politics.
This includes the creation of an electoral system that abolishes racial distinctions in parliamentary seats and creates a nation-wide constituency where voters vote for candidates because of their affiliation to political parties.
In an interview with Dateline in September 2014, Sayed-Khaiyum states that, “If you’re going to have political parties that are going to contest elections based on religion, ethnicity denomination, how will they be as a government?”
Furthermore, in its attempt to remove race-based politics, Bainimarama and Sayed-Khaiyum insist that all Fiji citizens be called Fijians. Consequently, the 2013 constitution legalized the common Fijian name.
In an electoral campaign debate on November 5, 2018, Bainimara says that, “a common name will unite all races in Fiji.”
The FijiFirst Party Government has also abolished racial categories in population census and other official data collection. The Fiji Bureau of Statistics no longer gathers and publishes racially-based data.
The move to erase race-based politics became more pronounced in the lead up to the 2018 election.
In August 2018 during an election campaign speech in Dreketi, Macuata Province, Sayed-Khaiyum said that, “people who campaign using race and religion have nothing to offer to people” He went on to say that, “the obsession with ethnicity will kill our country.”
The irony is that the outcome of the mid-November 2018 Fiji elections may have revealed an exacerbation of racial division, rather than its eraser.
Bainimarama’s FijiFirst Party won the election and retains its hold on government, but the margin with the Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA) is much slimmer than it was in 2014.
FijiFirst Party won 50.02% of the votes cast and 27 seats in the 51-seat parliament. The runner up, SODELPA scooped 39.85% of the votes, the National Federation Party (NFP) with 7.38%, with the rest of the political parties dragging behind.
What is interesting is that in the push for racial inclusion, the FijiFirst Party may have actually marginalized iTaukei from government and hence, political power.
It is revealing that of the 27 members in the ruling FijiFirst Party, only 9 (33%) of the ruling seats, including Bainimarama, are iTaukei.
This is despite the fact that indigenous Fijians (iTaukei) make up for 62% of the entire parliament.
This means that a majority of iTaukei parliamentarians are in the Opposition and therefore marginalized from government decision-makings.
But, why does it matter whether those in Government are iTaukei or not?
In the new Fiji as constructed by the FijiFirst Party, race doesn’t matter. Indeed, the marginalization argument holds only if the FijiFirst Party candidates were elected based on race.
Perhaps the FijiFirst Party would argue that that wasn’t the case. They were elected as Fijians representing all races in Fiji.
That is a valid argument. But it will not alleviate perceptions that iTaukei have become marginal to parliamentary power and government decision-makings.
Such perception could have dire consequences. It was such perceptions of iTaukei disempowerment or marginalization that contributed to the 1987 and 2000 coups.
It could be argued that in its attempt to be racially inclusive, the FijiFirst Party has inadvertently excluded iTaukei from the locus of power.
Another dimension to this discussion is the creation of a single national identity – every Fiji citizen is a Fijian.
While the emphasis is on a legal, rather than cultural identity, the creation of a single identity could also be a process of erasing other identities.
By invoking a single Fijian identity, the FijiFirst Party could overtime erase iTaukei, Indian, kailoma, kaivalagi, and all other identities – the multiple identities that make Fiji such a rich multi-cultural country.
However, it should also be noted that the creation of a single national identity often overwrites, rather than erase cultural identities. These multiple identities often emerge, rapturing the state-making agenda.
It is also worth noting that national identity construction could also be about identity appropriation.
So, because all Fiji citizens are Fijians, it is therefore possible to claim that all Fiji citizens are therefore iTaukei and have entitlements in the same way as other iTaukei.
On April 17, 2018, during a parliamentary debate on the petition by landowners from Nawailevu in Bua, the member of parliament and Minister for Employment, Productivity and Industrial Relations, Jone Usumate, states that, “this Government is focused on the needs of everyone in this country. The rights and the land of the indigenous iTaukei is something that we regard as very precious to all of us. We are all iTaukei here, a lot of us are iTaukei on this side and we regard that as precious.”
His invocation that “we are all iTaukei here” could be interpreted as an acceptance of the appropriation of the iTaukei identity – because we are all iTaukei, nobody is vulagi.
As the FijiFirst Party assumes its second term as government, hopefully that its push for racial inclusiveness does not end up excluding some groups from the governance of this beautiful country.
Such is the paradox of Fiji’s race politics.
Dr. Tarcisius Kabutaulaka*