Fiji in media blackout ahead of national election on Wednesday
SYDNEY — Fiji, a Pacific island nation pivotal to the region’s response to strategic competition between China and the United States, will hold a national election on Wednesday, the third since its leader came to power in a coup in 2006.
Under Fijian election laws, a media blackout on campaign coverage was imposed on Monday until polling booths close at 6pm on Wednesday. The blackout requires political parties to remove banners, posters and flags from public display.
A Pacific trade and transport hub with a population of 900,000, including a sizable Indian ethnic group, Fiji had a history of military coups until the constitution was changed in 2013 to remove a race-based electoral system.
Its military chief, Major General Ro Jone Kalouniwai, told officers in a public speech this month to “honor the democratic process by respecting the outcome of the voting”, easing fears the closely contested national election could lead to another coup.
A multinational observer group led by Australia, India and Indonesia will see about 90 election observers monitor polling booths and the national vote counting center.
Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, who came to power in a 2006 coup, won democratic elections in 2014 and 2018.
Bainimarama has a high international profile for climate change advocacy and has been chairman of the Pacific Islands Forum, the regional diplomatic bloc, as it sought this year to manage rising security tensions between the United States and China.
Fiji hosted a meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and the region in February, where Washington committed more diplomatic and security resources as a counter to China’s drive for greater influence.
Fiji strengthened its security ties with Australia, its biggest aid donor during the pandemic, after Solomon Islands signed a security pact with China in April.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, China had been a significant donor of equipment to Fiji’s military.
Dr Stewart Firth, a research fellow at the Australian National University who has written books on Fiji’s coups and Pacific politics, said this election would be a “tight race”.
Bainimarama had won support from the Indian community since 2013 because he abolished the race-based electoral system, he said.
This election, the main challenge to Bainimarama is expected to come from another former coup leader and prime minister, Sitiveni Rabuka, whose People’s Alliance Party has formed a coalition with Fiji’s oldest political party, National Federation Party. NFP attracts a strong multi-racial vote, Firth said.
A report by international observers on the conduct of the 2018 election said it was “transparent and credible”, while noting concern over self censorship by media.
The Multinational Observer Group’s 2018 report recommended laws be reviewed so media could “confidently play their vital role” to scrutinize the performance of government and opposition.