Capital: Suva
Population: 844,000

Political Rights Score: 6 *
Civil Liberties Score: 4 *
Status: Partly Free


In 2009, Fiji continued to be ruled by an interim government headed by the leaders of the 2006 military coup. A court ruled in April that the dismissal of Laisenia Qarase and the dissolution of Parliament in 2006, as well as Frank Bainimarama's 2007 appointment as interim prime minister, were illegal. President Josefa Iloilo subsequently suspended the constitution, reinstated Bainimarama as caretaker prime minister, and imposed Public Emergency Regulations. Throughout the year, the regime became increasingly intolerant of criticism, suppressing the media and voices of dissent through arrests and lawsuits.

Fiji, colonized by Britain in 1874, became an independent member of the Commonwealth in 1970. Intense rivalry between indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians is the main source of political and social tension. Indians were first brought to Fiji in the 19th century to work on sugar plantations, and Indo-Fijians have historically made up a majority of the population and controlled a large share of the economy. Armed coups by indigenous factions in 1987 and 2000 overthrew governments led by Indo-Fijian parties.

After the 2000 coup, the military installed Laisenia Qarase, an indigenous Fijian of the United Fiji Party (UFP), to lead an interim government. Qarase was elected prime minister in the 2001 elections, and he won a second term in 2006. That year, a destabilizing rift between Qarase and military chief Frank Bainimarama – an indigenous Fijian – emerged over the fate of the 2000 coup participants; Bainimarama wanted the suspects prosecuted and jailed, while Qarase proposed granting amnesty to those convicted and providing immunity to those not yet charged. When Qarase refused Bainimarama's demand for his resignation, he was ousted by Bainimarama in another military coup in December 2006. Parliament was dissolved, and Bainimarama assumed presidential powers, claiming that Qarase's removal was essential to tackling rampant official corruption and addressing discrimination against Indo-Fijians.

In January 2007, Bainimarama returned executive authority to former president Josefa Iloilo, a staunch Bainimarama supporter, who named Bainimarama the interim prime minister. Bainimarama also continued as the head of the military, and Iloilo granted him immunity. While the interim government undertook a number of reforms to address official corruption, public support for the coup quickly diminished when the government began intimidating its critics and suppressing the media through arrests and travel bans.Bainimarama also continued to ignore international appeals and pressure to return Fiji to civilian rule. The pledge for political reform lost credibility after the interim government cut wages in 2007 and 2008 for civil servants, but not cabinet members, and dismissals and appointments seemed largely a matter of opposition to or support for the interim government and Bainimarama.

In 2008, the interim government failed to set a date for elections and made electoral reforms and the approval of the new People's Charter for Change, Peace, and Progress preconditions for new elections. In 2007, the interim government had appointed a 45-member National Council for Building a Better Fiji – with representatives from government, provincial councils, and civil society – to draft the Charter, which was intended to complement the constitution.

Bainimarama and Qarase continued to pursue rival lawsuits in 2008, with the former seeking to nullify the 2006 elections based on alleged vote rigging by the UFP, and the latter calling for the interim government to be declared illegal. The Suva High Court dismissed Qarase's suit against the interim regime in October, ruling that Iloilo's appointment of the interim government was valid. Qarase filed another suit to stop work on the Charter, and the High Court granted an injunction in November to cease work on the document. However, the interim government subsequently obtained a stay on the injunction from the High Court to allow the drafting to continue.

In December, the final version of the Charter was released with recommendations to address the many sources of ethnic tensions, including replacing the communal electoral rolls with a one-person-one-vote system; teaching Fijian and Hindi in all schools to promote multiculturalism; and designating all citizens as Fijians, a term previously reserved only for indigenous Fijians. The Charter also officially confirmed the military's role in governing Fiji. Opposition members, the teacher's union, and the Methodist Church of Fiji and Rotuma all opposed the Charter.

In February 2009, Bainimarama announced the appointments of additional military officers to the cabinet and other senior government posts. Commander Francis Kean – Bainimarama's brother-in-law who was sentenced to 18 months in prison for manslaughter in 2007 – was appointed as head of the navy.

In April, the October 2008 High Court decision was overturned, and the court of appeal ruled that the 2006 dismissal of Qarase and his cabinet, the dissolution of Parliament, and the 2007 appointment of Bainimarama as interim prime minister were illegal.The president was ordered to appoint a caretaker prime minister to dissolve Parliament and call elections, though Bainimarama and Qarase were barred from being selected. Iloilo suspended the 1997 constitution the following day, reconfirmed himself as president under a "new legal order," nullified all judicial appointments, and imposed Public Emergency Regulations (PER) to suppress public opposition; the PER remained in place through year's end. Bainimarama, who had resigned following Iloilo's abrogation of the constitution, was named as caretaker prime minister and reappointed his previous cabinet. In July, Iloilo retired from the presidency, and Epeli Nailatikau – a military officer and the vice president – became the interim president.

Bainimarama remained defiant of international criticism and pressure throughout the year, isolating Fiji in the process. In September, Bainimarama promised a new constitution based on the Charter by 2013 and elections in September 2014, ignoring domestic and international requests to set earlier dates. In May, the European Union terminated millions in development aid and Fiji was suspended from the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), a regional political and economic bloc. In March and September, respectively, the United Nations and the British military said they would no longer recruit soldiers from Fiji. The country was officially suspended from the Commonwealth in September.

Bainimarama's relationship with traditional chiefs and the influential Methodist church also worsened throughout the year. He banned a Methodist church conference scheduled for August and charged a traditional high chief with disobedience for his involvement in the event.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Fiji is not an electoral democracy. Under the 1997 constitution, which was suspended in April 2009, Parliament consists of the 32-seat Senate and the 71-seat House of Representatives. The president appoints 14 senators on the advice of the Great Council of Chiefs, 9 on the advice of the prime minister, 8 on the advice of the opposition leader, and 1 on the advice of the council representing outlying Rotuma Island. House members are elected for five-year terms, with 25 seats open to all ethnicities, 23 reserved for indigenous Fijians, 19 for Indo-Fijians, 3 for other ethnic groups (mainly citizens of European and East Asian extraction), and 1 for Rotuma voters. The president is appointed to a five-year term by the Great Council of Chiefs in consultation with the prime minister, who is in turn appointed by the president. The prime minister is generally the leader of the majority party or coalition in Parliament.

The two main political parties are the UFP, largely supported by indigenous Fijians, and the predominantly Indo-Fijian Labor Party.

Official corruption and abuse are widespread, and reform agendas by multiple governments have not produced significant results. Despite Frank Bainimarama's pledge to tackle official corruption, he received $178,000 in March 2009 for leave accumulated since 1978. Fiji was not rated in Transparency International's 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.

While the 1997 constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press, the interim government continued to harass and intimidate the media in 2009. A number of domestic and foreign journalists were detained, arrested, convicted, and deported throughout the year. The Australian-born editor of the Fiji Times was deported in January after the newspaper was convicted of contempt of court. The Fiji Times was fined $54,500 and its editor-in-chief was given a three-month suspended sentence for publishing an article criticizing the judges who supported the 2006 military coup.

Media conditions deteriorated considerably following the April suspension of the constitution and enforcement of the PER. The state-owned Fiji Broadcasting Corporation provides radio and television broadcasts, and while there are several privately owned newspapers and radio and television stations, the PER allowed for daily government censorship of print publications and radio and television broadcasts. The military regime warned journalists against publishing or broadcasting content that was critical of Bainimarama or the interim government. In April,two Australian Broadcasting Corporation FM radio transmitters were shut down, and journalists with Fijilive, a web-based news service, were detained and questioned for a story on the devaluation of Fiji's currency. All broadcasting licenses were revoked in November. Internet access is expanding but remains limited by cost and connectivity constraints outside the capital.

Freedom of religion is generally respected, though the interim government detained several religious leaders opposed to the military regime in 2009. Most indigenous Fijians are Christians, and Indo-Fijians are Hindus. The number of attacks on places of worship, especially Hindu temples, has increased in recent years.

While academic freedom is generally respected, the education system suffers from a lack of resources, and indigenous Fijians are granted special privileges in education. Bainimarama's interim government has claimed that the promised new constitution seeks to eliminate such favoritism. Brij Lal, an Australian citizen of Fijian origin and an academic at the Australian National University, was deported to Australia in November 2009 after he commented to the media on the interim government's expulsion of diplomatic representatives from Australia and New Zealand.

Freedoms of assembly and association have also been restricted since the suspension of the 1997 constitution and the imposition of the PER in April. Bainimarama's government was permitted to stop public protests under the PER, and the few permits granted for pubic assemblies were often revoked. Since 2007, the interim government has banned several public demonstrations by the Methodist Church and teacher's union against the government's policies. Workers can form and join trade unions, though these rights have reportedly been constrained under the new interim government.

The 2009 abrogation of the constitution has raised concerns about the future independence of Fiji's judiciary. Josefa Iloilo dismissed the judiciary in April, though new judges aligned with the military regime were appointed, as well as the former chief justice and several judges loyal to Bainimarama. The already serious backlog of cases was exacerbated by a shortage of judges and lawyers due to the government's delayed replacement of dismissed personnel. Prisons are highly overcrowded with poor sanitary and living conditions.

Race-based discrimination is pervasive, and indigenous Fijians receive preferential treatment in education, housing, land acquisition, and other areas. Discrimination, economic hardship, and political turmoil have caused more than 140,000 Indo-Fijians to leave Fiji since the late 1980s. Part of the resulting void has been filled by migrants from China, who now control approximately 5 percent of the economy. Their growing economic strength has made them targets of indigenous Fijian resentment and attacks.

Discrimination and violence against women are widespread. Women's groups claim that rape, child abuse, incest, and infanticide cases are increasing, as well as the number of pregnancy-related deaths. Women are not well represented in government and leadership positions and do not receive equal pay. Legal protections against discrimination do not include homosexuality. Fiji is a source and destination country for the trafficking of women and children.

*Countries are ranked on a scale of 1-7, with 1 representing the highest level of freedom and 7 representing the lowest level of freedom.

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