October 14, 2011

Prof Jon Fraenkel: If Frank Bainimarama believes people, let them have vote

Thanks to fellow blog Fiji Democracy Now picking up this gem, we reproduce here for your reading pleasure another slam-dunk against the think-tank-that-tanked, the Lowy Institute.
If Frank Bainimarama believes people, let them have vote
by: Jon Fraenkel
From: The Australian
October 14, 2011 12:00AM

IN the five years since Fiji's military strongman Frank Bainimarama seized power in a coup, he has liquidated parliament, banned meetings of the Great Council of Chiefs and the Methodist Church, dismissed the judiciary and transformed the media into an obedient servant of his government.

Last month, an Essential National Industries Decree curtailed union rights, and several unionists have been taken into custody.

Also last month, the Lowy Institute released a poll claiming that 66 per cent of Fiji citizens now approve of Bainimarama.

"Twice as popular as Julia Gillard," Fiji's chief censor Sharon Smith-Johns crowed. Civil society activists within Fiji have condemned the poll as inappropriate, misleading and methodologically flawed.

Australian Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs Richard Marles reasonably asked: "If you are sitting at home, in a country where a repressive regime has stripped you of human rights and where people do get taken off to barracks and you get a knock on the door and a stranger asks, 'What do you think of the government', what do you think you'd say?"

Writing in The Australian on October 6, the Lowy Institute's Jenny Hayward-Jones defended the poll. This year's survey, financed by Fiji-born Lowy board member and investment banker Mark Johnson, was carried out by Tebbutt Research. It entailed interviews with 1032 people in urban areas on Viti Levu, Fiji's main island. The previous such poll, conducted by Tebbutt for The Fiji Times in December 2008, asked respondents to pick their favoured prime minister.

Deposed prime minister Laisenia Qarase emerged on top, with 31 per cent approval, and Bainimarama ran second, at 27 per cent.

The present poll asks a more loaded question: "How good a job do you personally think Commodore Frank Bainimarama is doing as Prime Minister?"

The disapproval rating of 8 per cent was way below what most surveys of this kind would expect.

How was it possible to conduct such a poll under conditions of severe media censorship?

Hayward-Jones claims the Lowy Institute did not seek any direct permission from the Fiji government, but doubts remain about whether the survey was devised in such a way as to avoid responses that might prove politically awkward.

Respondents were also asked how good a job government was doing on education (82 per cent good), transport (71 per cent) and health (69 per cent).

It was even reported that 59 per cent thought the government was doing a good job on the economy, which has contracted by 7.4 per cent in the past four years and which has caused investment to grind to a virtual halt.

Respondents stated that government was doing a good job in "preparing to draft a new constitution" (53 per cent) and "reforming the electoral system" (51 per cent), both tasks that the government itself does not intend to start until next year.

Those responses either show a giant gulf between perception and reality, or that respondents concurred with whatever was put before them, or that they felt intimidated.

The headline 66 per cent approval rating was broken down into 75 per cent Fiji Indian support and, more dubiously, 60 per cent backing among indigenous Fijians.

Only 19 per cent of indigenous Fijians chose Bainimarama as preferred prime minister in the 2008 poll. Since then, the constitution has been abrogated and public emergency regulations have become a permanent fixture.

Critics of government have been hounded from their jobs and, for the most part, silenced.

A climate of intimidation prevails in post-coup Fiji. What was once a frank and straight-talking society has become a place where people are guarded about what they say and to whom they say it.

Yet, five years after the coup, there probably is more support, or at least grudging acquiescence, than many of the critics would like to concede.

After all, there is no obvious alternative to Bainimarama on the horizon. Qarase has never looked like a politician capable of recapturing power. His predecessor, Fiji Indian leader Mahendra Chaudhry, is before the courts on corruption charges.

But if there genuinely is such popular support, why is the Bainimarama government so scared? Why the need to continually renew the public emergency regulations?

If Bainimarama and his information secretary believe that they have extensive backing, why not hold immediate elections?

In fact, it was awareness of popular hostility that led Bainimarama and his Attorney-General in July 2009 to cancel all dialogue with political parties and put off elections until 2014.

They also promised resumption of dialogue towards a new constitution next year.

So soon there will be a fresh test of whether Bainimarama again reneges on his promises (as he did in mid-2008) or whether his government can effectively handle some kind of transition towards elective democracy.
Jon Fraenkel is a senior research fellow at the Australian National University.

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