The Absence of Embarrassment

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A court in Fiji recently sentenced former Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama to a year in prison for seeking to suppress a police investigation into corruption at the University of the South Pacific. Lower courts had initially allowed Bainimarama, who served for 15 years through 2022, and Sitiveni Qiliho, the former police commissioner, to avoid jail, but the Pacific island country’s high court overturned that ruling, the BBC wrote.

Now Bainimarama’s political party, FijiFirst, faces deregistration after party leaders sought to expel 16 lawmakers who joined the current government of Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka in granting themselves pay raises of as much as 130 percent– despite widespread public opposition to the idea and criticism that the measure was illegally passed, explained Radio New Zealand. FijiFirst has no mechanism to oust members, according to electoral officials who said the party would need to create a process or its members would become independents.

Many Fijians are disgusted by their politicians giving themselves more money while nonchalantly sowing political uncertainty. Writing in the Fiji Times, Tui Rakuita, a social scientist at the University of Otago in New Zealand and the University of the South Pacific, described the “absence of any form of embarrassment” among the country’s political elites.

Fiji is not a wealthy country. About 30 percent of the country lives in poverty, according to the Asian Development Bank, and the average annual income is under $14,000. Meanwhile, the country has a high national debt, poor education outcomes for young people, poor quality healthcare services, and crumbling water infrastructure. Recently, nurses had to purchase syringes and needles for patients because the hospital ran out.

At the same time, the government recently increased the retirement age from 60 to 62 years old, saying a brain drain to Australia and New Zealand has hurt the economy, compelling older workers to labor harder and longer, the East Asia Forum reported.

These developments highlight the instability of Fiji’s government, wrote the Strategist, a publication of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. The pay increase was not popular among Rabuka’s important allies in the coalition government, which includes his People’s Alliance as well as the National Federation Party and the Social Democratic Liberal Party. If the opposition FijiFirst party disbands, it will be hard to constitute a new government if Rabuka’s current one falls.

Some actors in Fijian politics might be hoping to capitalize on the chaos. “Veteran politicians are grandstanding with one eye on the next election,” argued the Interpreter, a publication of the Australian think tank, the Lowy Institute. “Others are anticipating the demise of some of the existing political parties and are hoping to pick up their votes. The government has unwisely stumbled into a trap of its own making.”

Fiji has a history of political violence. Both Rabuka and Bainimarama launched coups in Fiji, in 1987 and 2006, respectively. Bainimarama has emphasized “ethnic inclusiveness” in his governments, while Rabuka has played up “Indigenous nationalism”. Rabuka, 75, is also a sportsman who recently won a bronze medal in the shot put at the Oceania Athletics Championships, added CNN.

The world will see if Fiji holds together.

In the meantime, some labor leaders and civil rights groups are planning protests. Labour leader Mahendra Chaudhry said the parliamentarians’ salary hike comes as the ruling party reneges on its campaign pledge to lower the government officials’ salaries, prioritize the legislation of a fair minimum wage for workers and lower living costs.

“This is policy-making at its most self-indulgent without consideration to its detrimental impact on the people of Fiji,” said Chaudhry. “While the general population has to endure austerity measures in depressed economic conditions, ministers are queuing up for pay increases.”

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