Fiji Islands – where ethnic Indians comprise about 37 percent of its 840,000 population spread of 110 inhabited islands – is in election mode with catchy radio jingles, glossy banners and other paraphernalia of campaigning on display. The general election on Sep 17 is expected to bring an end to the eight-year-long military government in the South Pacific island nation. The radio jingles are to help people memorize numbers as the single ballot for the entire country will carry no names, only numbers to identify the candidates. Fiji, which has had three elected governments overthrown by armed men in as many decades, is holding an election after eight years with a new and distinctive voting system under a new constitution promulgated by the military regime headed by Rear Admiral Frank Bainimarama. Race or ethnicity has been a pivotal aspect of the cultural, political and economic life in Fiji’s complex society. But race will not play a role in the election process this time. The new constitution has done away with race-based electoral rolls, race-based seat quotas and some special privileges of the indigenous Fijians. Under the new system, all Fiji citizens are now called “Fijians”, irrespective of their origin. Indigenous Fijians form 56 percent of Fiji’s population while people of Indian origin account for 37 percent. Political rivalry between the two groups led to two elected governments being overthrown by radical indigenous Fijians, irked over the loss of political power to what were perceived as Indian dominated governments. The 2006 coup was not racially motivated.
Indians in Fiji are the fourth or fifth generation descendants of migrants who were brought to the British colony in the late 19th and early 20th century to work on the sugarcane plantations. They were well assimilated in Fiji society in the professions, the civil services, agriculture and the retail sector as well as politics till they were targeted in the post-coup turmoil. Large number of Indians migrated after the first coup in 1987.
Under the 1970 constitution, there were a specified number of seats in the Legislative Assembly for the two main ethnic groups and voters voted for candidates from their own ethnic community. The race-based electoral system was meant to give an equal share in power to the two major ethnic groups and as protection for the indigenous Fijians who were outnumbered by the Indians at the time of independence in 1970. While it maintained racial parity in the Legislative Assembly, it effectively meant that politicians focused their appeals to their own communities.