By Florian Decludt Staff Writer October 28, 2013

Fiji’s hopes for stability and economic prosperity hinge on moving past ethnic divides.

The stability of Fiji rests upon ethnic equality. Political instability has plagued Fiji since it gained its independence in 1970. Four coups and two constitutional crises repeatedly marred domestic politics—negatively affecting Fiji’s society, economy, and international standing. The case of Fiji is interesting: the archipelago’s situation is similar to many Asian and African nations where one ethnic group dominates country politics at the expense of others, negatively impacting political and economic stability.

Fiji’s instability stems from its demographic breakdown. Until the 1990s, the majority of Fijians were ethnically Indo-Fijian, descendants of plantation workers moved to the archipelago by the British. Melanesians, who are the archipelago’s first inhabitants, made up the remaining population. An ethnic divide first materialized following the 1977 elections, which resulted in a close vote between the Melanesian and Indo-Fijian parties. Neither side could form a stable government due to internal divisions and the Melanesians’ rejection of Indo-Fijian leadership. The ensuing uncertainty ended in 1987, when Melanesian Colonel Rabuka staged two military coups. Upon victory, Rabuka revoked the constitution and proclaimed the Republic of Fiji. These events led Fiji to further break away from the United Kingdom by revoking Queen Elizabeth II as head of state, and paved the way for the institutionalized ethnic politics of the 1990s, which Melanesians dominated.

Melanesian dominance was broken in 1999, when Mahendra Chaudhry became Fiji’s first Indo-Fijian prime minister. Ethnic conflict caused the political upheavals and government instability that characterized the years after Chaudhry’s victory. Two coups d’état took place in 2000 and 2006, led respectively by Melanesians George Speight and the Fijian military, to ensure Melanesian control over domestic politics. Melanesian President Illoilo cemented the changes by suspending the constitution in 2009, leading the Commonwealth of Nations and the Pacific Islands Forum to suspend Fijian membership. These events resulted in a major change in the composition of Fiji’s population and severe shrinkage of the Fijian economy. Approximately 75,000 Indo-Fijians fled in response to instability and successive discrimination by Melanesian governments. Many of those migrants were badly needed skilled workers. Melanesians now account for 54 percent of the population, while the Indo-Fijian share sits at 38 percent of the country’s almost one million people.

According to President Illoilo, the next elections will be held in 2014. Yet, given the country’s history with elections and mutual distrust amongst the two largest ethnic groups, Fiji remains unlikely to achieve stability. In addition, further economic damage caused by international isolation following the 2009 economic crisis will likely increase popular frustration with government officials. Such a combination of ethnic and economic factors must be considered when assessing Fiji’s stability, as income disparities and institutionalized discrimination toward the Indo-Fijian minority could push a fringe of the population to turn violent, potentially starting a civil war.

Fiji can only achieve long-term stability by promoting equal rights for all Fijian citizens. Such a change would improve the quality of the democratic process, leading to free and fair elections, while permitting Fiji’s reintegration into the Commonwealth of Nations and the Pacific Islands Forum. Retrieving full membership to these organizations is vital for the country’s economy, as it would increase inward investment flows, ease access procedures for tourists, and allow the influx of aid packages Fiji needs to diversify its economy. Recognizing equal rights for all Fijians could also trigger the return of emigrated skilled labor, which would enhance the country’s international competitiveness. Reinforcement of Fiji’s economy is critical to long-term political stability. Lastly, a move toward equal rights would create a positive precedent for multi-ethnic countries around the world that encounter a similar set of issues as Fiji, thereby increasing the archipelago’s international standing. To this end, President Illoilo must begin a gradual process to push for the inclusion of Indo-Fijians in political life. The international community, particularly Australia and the Pacific Islands Forum, should act as mediators and support the process by lifting sanctions as Fiji moves forward.

Florian Decludt is a M.A. Candidate in International Affairs with a concentration in Security & Development at the Elliott School of International Affairs. He previously studied and worked overseas in France, Australia, the Dominican Republic and Singapore. His areas of focus are maritime security and Southeast Asian & Pacific Affairs.

Photo courtesy of AFP.