The politics of COVID-19 and military government in Fiji

Asia Health Politics World

Author: Scott MacWilliam, ANU

Along with the rest of the world in 2021, Fiji faced a virus whose capacities for continuing mutation are not yet entirely known. While some comfort has appeared for those holding state power and those with stakes in the tourism sector, COVID-19 continues to impoverish the lives of most people. 

Travellers look on at performers upon arrival at Nadi Airport, Fiji in this still frame obtained from handout video dated December 1, 2021

Travellers look on at performers upon arrival at Nadi Airport, Fiji in this still frame obtained from handout video dated December 1, 2021

As poverty has increased, success in limiting the spread of COVID-19 has been at least partly due to the continued hold on power by a deeply authoritarian regime. The government’s ability to impose curfews and lockdowns, as well as expedite vaccines, marked Fiji as exceptional by comparison to many countries.

This ability flags perhaps the most important feature of Fiji’s political economy. Instead of becoming a more liberal democratic capitalist economy, as some had hoped when elections were reintroduced in 2014, the government led by Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama has tightened its hold.

The threat of the pandemic was used to keep an even tighter grip on dissent. Continued fragmentation within the Social Democratic Liberal Party, the main opposition party, and the weakness of other parties has meant that the governing FijiFirst party appears to be in the box seat heading into 2022, an election year.

The government’s position has been further strengthened by the jousting between Western countries and China in the region. There is considerable resentment in Fiji and across the international community with how the Australian-led ‘Pacific Step-up’ has resulted in little to no objection to the continuing authoritarian rule.

The Bainimarama government has been particularly skilful in its use of state resources for strengthening popular support. After extreme weather events, the government has been prominent and strategic in recovery efforts. Extending electrification, rebuilding roads and improving schools and health centres have been obvious signs that an election is not far off.

A continuous opposition criticism of the government in 2021 was the increasing public indebtedness. As much as this objection fits with certain politicians’ and economists’ nostrums, it has been easy for the government to portray its expenditure as vital for the fight against COVID-19 and to help an economy crippled by the closure of national borders. The recent return of tourists was welcomed by government officials as proof that their earlier caution in severely limiting international arrivals, regardless of the immediate economic costs, was sound policy. Whether the Omicron variant of COVID-19 will affect recovery adds to the uncertainties of 2022.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment, under-employment and impoverishment have long been prominent concerns in Fiji. Even as people have moved out of rural areas into cities and towns, agricultural holdings have remained important as a means of reproducing consumption, growing food crops and providing security for old age. The pandemic-induced closure of tourist resorts and urban firms heightened the importance of straddling between town and the countryside.

While the government provides limited welfare support, so-called subsistence agriculture has become even more important for many during the pandemic. This has heightened the political signficance of land ownership and the ongoing battle between land as a means for accumulation and reproducing consumption. Politicians on the extreme right have appealed to their electoral base by proclaiming Taukei primacy over land holding and even citizenship against non-indigenous migrants, such as Indo-Fijians. These disputes are certain to continue in 2022.

What the effects of increasing impoverishment will mean for the upcoming election year are uncertain. With an already heavily indebted regime, how much further government borrowing will be possible to provide campaign sweeteners? Will the government’s international allies maintain their support financially and by other means?

At the 2018 election, voter turnout was lower than at the first ‘return to democracy’ election four years earlier, when many younger voters had their first taste of being participants in electoral politics. FijiFirst’s share of a reduced total vote fell to 50 per cent from over 59 per cent. The number of seats won through this declining vote fell from 32 to 27 in a parliament enlarged by one seat, with the government’s overall majority reduced to just three. With non-compulsory voting, it is unclear if the government be able to count on its allies to push voting levels to the 2014 level, or if 2018 marks the start of dissent becoming stronger by abstention from voting.

Can the opposition parties, marginalised in parliament and riven with dissent, form the necessary alliances to win a majority of seats? If so, would Bainimarama and FijiFirst relinquish government? Is it entirely coincidental that 2021 ends in Fiji with the role of the military in politics once again being prominent in public discussion?

Recent public discussions about the place of the military in national politics have re-emphasised at a critical time how forming governments occurs only with the approval of the leadership of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces. That the commanding officer of this institution was appointed in 2021 by the current government only served to emphasise the continuing close connection between the military and other institutions of state power.

Scott MacWilliam is a Visiting Fellow with the Department of Pacific Affairs, The Australian National University.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2021 in review and the year ahead.