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The UK must support Fiji at ’a critical point for its future development’

Friday, February 20, 2015

The following was published by Politics Home

During the week of 26th January I was delighted to welcome the Speaker of the Fijian Parliament and the leaders of its Government and opposition parties to Westminster for a truly landmark programme. Landmark for a number of reasons. Hon. Dr Jiko Luveni MP is the first female Speaker in the South Pacific region and this was the first engagement with Fijian parliamentarians during this Parliament and indeed since 2008. Last year Fiji was re-admitted to the Commonwealth after a five-year suspension following its first successful democratic parliamentary election since the 2006 military coup.

I was privileged to be a member of the Multinational Observer Group monitoring its parliamentary elections on 17th September 2014. Although there were a few concerns about the environment in which the election took place, such as restrictions on the media, the election was credible. It gave citizens a real opportunity to select their government for the first time in 8 years, a huge step forward for Fijian democracy. It took place in an atmosphere of optimism and enthusiasm for democratic participation long queues formed at polling stations throughout the morning. With a 59% majority for the Fiji First party of the former unelected Prime Minister, the result was clear, but the main opposition party Soldelpa achieved a very credible 28% of the vote, earning it 15 seats in the Parliament of 50. The National Federation Party also gained 3 seats. 

Fiji’s democratic development since independence has been erratic. It has had four coups - the first in 1987, introduced and abandoned numerous constitutions, withdrawn from the Commonwealth for a decade from 1987-1997, re-joined and subsequently been suspended for five years 2009-2014. For decades it has struggled to resolve tensions between the two major ethnic groups, indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians. These struggles continue alongside wider structural issues, such as Fiji’s vulnerability to climate change, energy insecurity, persistent trade and budget deficits, challenges of administering public services in a nation that consists of hundreds of often tiny islands, and discriminatory attitudes towards women in its inherently patriarchal society.

As it seeks to recover lost time and re-establish a robust democracy, one of the biggest challenges is a lack of institutional knowledge. Parliament has not existed for eight years, 90% of MPs are elected for the first time and procedural and administrative staff are not in place to support Members.

In this context, the UK Parliament’s engagement is particularly important. It gives the opportunity for peer-to-peer learning, for us to share experience with our Fijian colleagues. Last month’s programme, organised by CPA UK with support from UNDP, involved a detailed exploration of administration, practice and procedure in the UK Parliament, covering matters from the legislative process and the role of the Opposition to parliamentary research services.

Members of the delegation enjoyed the chance to see parliament at work from the rowdy nature of Prime Minister’s question time to the more reflective work of committees. A round table discussion was held on increasing the participation of women, when the delegation heard from female MPs and peers on initiatives within UK political parties. With senior women taking on visible roles in the new Fijian parliament, including as Leader of the Opposition, there is the opportunity to use these role models as a means to further increase female participation.

The delegation also visited the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly to explore administration in the devolved context. I anticipate further such programmes in coming years building on this initial exchange and look forward to the opportunity to develop these themes with other Fijian colleagues.

Fiji sits at a critical point for its future development. With a democratically mandated government for the first time in years it has the opportunity to address its economic, social and infrastructure problems, but it cannot do so in an inclusive and participatory manner without building the resilience of its democratic institutions. The UK, Commonwealth and wider international community can and should be invaluable partners in this process.  


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