Fiji part 1

July 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

Fiji map

I’m splitting these up into several blog posts to make sure there is less of a pause between blogs.

Who lives there?: A surprising number of people – nearly a million. To understand where Fiji is you really have to have a snoop around Google Maps and look at a political map of the south pacific. It probably won’t tell you much to say that there are 110 inhabited islands, 200 uninhabited islands and 500 islets scattered across an 1000 mile by 1000 mile area.

The two largest islands are the northern island of Vanua Levu and the southern one of Viti Levu. They are both about 100 miles by 100 miles – making them the largest oceanic islands in the Pacific bar the big island of Hawaii. 87% of the population live on those two islands. The remaining inhabitants mostly live on outlying islands, on a lose archipelago (Lau) about 200 miles east of the main group, or a long thin chain (Yasawa) about 70 miles north west of the main group. The small island of Rotuma, 500 miles to the north, is culturally quite important.

The closest island is the French territory of Wallis and Futuna about 2-300 miles to the north east. Other close islands include: Tuvalu (about 600 miles to the north), Samoa (700 miles to the north east), Tonga (3-400 miles to the south east), New Zealand (1,000 miles to the south), the French territory of New Caledonia (700 miles to the south west), and Vanuatu (600 miles to the west.

Two types of people make up almost all of the population. The denonyms of these groups is somewhat politically charged and the subject of much controversy. Those who mostly use the term “Native Fijians” are the descendants of those who inhabited Fiji before the British got there. They are mostly of Melanesian (ie probably originally from New Guinea) origin with a significant Polynesian (ie possibly from Malaya originally, but having been island hopping – mostly in the more remote islands to the north – for a good few thousands years). This group are mostly Christian and mostly speak Bau Fijian

The second group are now mostly referred to as Indo Fijians. Most of these are the descendants of indentured servants the British brought over from all over northern India, although there are a few more recent economic migrants from Gujrat and the Punjab. They are roughly 50% Hindu and 50% Muslim, the Muslims in turn being roughly split 50/50 between Sunni and Shia. Most speak Fijian Hindi – a language which is described as as similar to Hindi as Afrikaans is to Dutch.

Slightly more than 50% describe themselves as native Fijian and around 35% as Indo Fijian. The rest either acknowledge they are mixed race or belong to one of Fiji’s small but significant ethnic minorities. There are 12,000 or so Rotumans – only 2,000 of which now live on Rotuma island. Their culture owes much more to Tongan and Samoan influence than it does Fijian. There are about 7,000 members of other minorities -most of them Tongans. Tongans traditionally came to Fiji, which has more trees than Tonga, to build their larger and longer distance ships.

Fiji’s coat of arms is cute.

How does the system work? (the theory): In 2006 the Fijian military staged a coup (their second in 6 years) and deposed the government of Fiji. In 2007 they reinstalled the former President but without the parliament and with the military still running the executive. In 2009 Fiji’s supreme court ruled the military takeover illegal and insisted that democracy be restored. All the military officials resigned and the President was left in sole charge pending new elections. The very next day, said President announced that due to the constitutional crisis the only thing to do would be to suspend Fiji’s constitution, abolish the supreme court, and re-appoint the military led government. This is supposed to be an interim method pending elections which will be held soon – allegedly. So the text below describes a system which is currently in suspension, and may never return.

Fiji has a President who is appointed for a five year term by the Great Council of Chiefs in consultation with the Prime Minister. They are supposed to have only nominal powers but recent events have shown how powerful they can become at times of constitutional uncertainty. Executive power should lie with the Prime Minister, who is formally appointed by the President but is always the person best able to command a majority in the House of Representatives.

There are four legislative bodies: two formal and two informal. The House of Representatives is the lower and the most powerful of the two formal legislative bodies and appoints the executive PM and Cabinet. The House of Representatives consists of 71 members: 25 elected by universal suffrage and 46 along ethnic or communal lines. each elector gets 2 votes: one in the universal suffrage election and one in the communal election. Election is by AV with singel member constituencies.

Thus Fiji is split up into 25 geographic areas with roughly equal populations for the purpose of electing the 25 members elected by universal suffrage. Separately, and with no relation to these boundaries, Fiji is split up into 19 geographic areas with roughly equal populations for the purpose of electing the 19 members elected by Indo Fijians. Only Indo Fijians can vote for candidates for these constituencies. Separately, and with no relation to these boundaries, Fiji is split up into 3 geographic areas with roughly equal populations for the purpose of electing the 3 members elected by “General Electors” (amalgamated smaller ethnic minorities). Only general electors can vote for candidates for these constituencies. Separately Fiji is considered one large constituency for the purpose of electing the member elected by Rotumans. Only Rotumans can vote for candidate for this constituency. Separately, and with no relation to any of the proceeding boundaries, Fiji is split up into 23 geographic areas  for the purpose of electing the 23 members elected by “native Fijians”. Only “native Fijians” can vote for candidates for these constituencies. Unlike the others these 23 seats are not created by splitting Fiji into geographic areas with roughly equal populations. Rather 17 of them are demarcated by the traditional territories of various Fijian Tribes, the remaining 6 seats are created by splitting up the rest of Fiji into siz geographic areas with roughly equal populations.

Confused? Well it’s a mess, and its made more of a mess by a failure to review electoral boundaries in many years, leading to various rotten borough accusations. In addition as both registration and voting are compulsory, the government effectively has your ethnicity on file, which has never been a good thing.

The upper house in the legislative is the Senate. 32 members are appointed for five years term. They are appointed by the President but the President is required by law to accept the suggestions of various groups. 14 are appointed on the suggestion of the Great Council of Chiefs, although in practice they delegate the actual choosing to the 14 provincial councils each of which select one. 9 are then selected by the Prime Minister, 8 by the official Leader of the Opposition, and 1 by the Council of Rotuma. In addition to the traditional roles of the upper house, any changes to the laws which guarantee native Fijians the continuing ownership of most of Fiji must be approved by 9 of the 14 senators appointed by the Great Council of Chiefs.

Then there are the informal Chief’s parliaments, they  makes elections to the House of Representatives look positively rational. I characterised them as informal legislative chambers but this is perhaps unfair as they have significant powers of patronage and appointment, as outlined above, and not least in the appointment of the President. In addition there is a powerful convention in Fijian politics that no significant changes to the constitution or the law should happen without consulting the chiefs through these bodies.

There are two parliaments: the House of Chiefs, and the Great Council of Chiefs. The House of Chiefs consists of every hereditary noble of traditional Fijian tribal society – there are about 70 in total. The House of Chiefs serves no real function except in that the Great Council of Chiefs is elected from its members.

The Great Council of Chiefs has 52 members, all of whom must be Chiefs, and 3 ex officio members who don’t have to be. The ex officio members are the President, Vice President, and Prime Minister. 6 of the full members are appointed by the President on the advice of the Minister for Fijian Cultural Affairs. 42 are chosen, 3 each, by the 14 Fijian provincial councils. 3 are chosen by the Council of Rotuma. All of these appointees are for five year terms. The final member, Sitiveni Rabuka, was a significant figure in recent Fijian politics about whom you will be hearing a lot. He was made a life member in 1987 following a constitutional crisis.

Brilliantly obscure Fijian constitutional fact. The nation of Fiji does not acknowledge the existence of a Fijian monarchy but the Great Council of Chiefs does and insists Queen Elisabeth II is also Queen of Fiji.

Fiji has fairly powerful local government – up to a point. It is divided into 4 divisions and the self-governing island of Rotuma. the 4 divisions are divided up into 14 provinces.

The divisions are run by commissioners appointed by the Prime Minister but have very little power apart from by playing a coordinating role. The provinces are run by provincial councils which are elected directly. They can set taxes, pass by-laws and run virtually every access of services. However the national government’s civil service does have the power to veto both those decisions and the appointment of the executive chair of the council.

The Council of Rotuma is designed like a provincial council but with greater power. Specifically it has powers relating to  “peace, order and good government of the Rotuman community and, without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing, relating to (a) the keeping clean of Rotuma and the promotion of public health; (b) the social and economic betterment of the Rotuman community; (c) the performance of communal work by members of the Rotuman community and other communal activities of the Rotuman community; (d) the control of livestock on Rotuma; (e) the prevention or removal of public [waste?] (f) the care of children and aged persons; (g) the conservation of food supplies on Rotuma. [and] (2) Such regulations may impose penalties for the breach thereof not exceeding imprisonment for a term of four months or a fine of one hundred dollars or both such imprisonment and fine.”

These powers can be exercised provisionally by the chair of the council but are subject to ratification by the Fijian parliament. Rotuma is constitutionally governed by the Rotuma act 1927 which has a great section on the legality of killing pigs. Seriously it’s one of my favourite constitutions.

More soon


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