Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 12:27 | SYDNEY
Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 12:27 | SYDNEY

Influencing the Commodore


Jenny Hayward-Jones


30 July 2008 15:31

In her first visit to the Pacific Islands region last weekend, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reiterated demands that Fiji’s interim government hold elections by March 2009. 

While it is tempting to believe that the entreaties of the US Secretary of State have some influence on Fiji’s interim government, its recent behaviour does not inspire much confidence. Fiji’s interim leader defied pressure from Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands Forum, the US, and the European Union to meet the election deadline, announcing that elections would not be held by the promised date of March 2009.

Commodore Frank Bainimarama told Fiji Radio on 18 July that the timeframe he had earlier agreed to did not allow sufficient time for electoral reforms to be developed and implemented. He argued that he had only committed to holding elections in March 2009 on the understanding from Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) chair, Tongan Prime Minister Dr Fred Sevele, that the international community would be flexible about an extension to this deadline. 

Sevele countered that he had persuaded Bainimarama that it was unacceptable to insert the phrase  'in principle' in the section of the PIF communiqué committing Fiji to holding elections in March 2009. He recalled advising Bainimarama that if Fiji took all reasonable steps towards holding an election but found it was genuinely and practically impossible to do so, the Forum would be prepared to be flexible about extending the deadline. 

This argument about words over substance is symptomatic of the interim government’s poor judgment in dealing with the international community and its Pacific Island neighbours. I have argued that the Forum and Australia would need to develop a new approach when it became clear that Fiji would not hold elections next year. The Fiji interim government, having now telegraphed its intentions, is also in need of a new approach. 

The act of defying Australia and New Zealand is hardly unusual in the Pacific, and as we have seen this year in the cases of PNG and Solomon Islands, can be forgiven.  But given the strong historical and kinship ties between Fiji and Tonga, it would seem that quiet Fiji diplomacy seeking a more sympathetic approach from Tonga might be more effective than challenging the word of the Tongan Prime Minister through the media.

Bainimarama is representing Fiji at the coronation of King George Tupou V in Tonga this week. The occasion might present an opportunity for him to reflect on the value of Fiji’s relations with its Pacific Islands neighbours.