Editorial: Fiji's power shift uneasy

Fiji President Ratu Epeli Nailatikau was ridiculously disingenuous when he spoke to his nation last week about the country's constitution.

"We cannot . . . allow unelected people to make decisions for the rest of the general public in the new parliamentary system," he declared, speaking for a government illegally established after a military coup.

The regime had commissioned an internationally renowned constitutional expert to draft a new constitution (New Zealand chipped in $500,000 to have the job done). Obviously dissatisfied with the results, it has decided to write its own draft, then send it to a constituent assembly comprising people it will appoint to finalise matters.

Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama reiterated that elections to restore democracy will be held next year. Don't hold your breath. A great deal of specious rhetoric accompanied the rejection of the draft constitution: it risked reigniting racial tensions, said President Nailatikau; it threatened to undo reforms introduced by Commodore Bainimarama; it would lead to "financial and economic catastrophe and ruin".

The draft was never released for discussion. The police seized copies after the draft was presented to the president and burned printer's proofs. This heavy-handed action speaks volumes.

Leaked copies show the draft included a blueprint for an electoral system with a single national electoral roll and seats allocated by proportional representation - just what the commodore had called for. But it also called for the country's coup-prone military forces to be downsized and sidelined from politics after elections next year, and it proposed a transitional government to take over the country ahead of the vote. That would have required Commander Bainimarama to cede power.

New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully diplomatically said there were always going to be steps forward and steps back in the restoration of Fiji's democracy. This was "rather larger a step back than any of us feel comfortable with, but it's what we've got to work with". New Zealand will continue to help ensure there are fair and democratic elections next year, rather than walk away. Fair enough. But it must have been tempting to echo Samoa's Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailel, who described the draft's burning as a "despicable act of intimidation" and said the military regime had no intention of relinquishing power to usher in a democratically elected government.