SUVA, Fiji (AFP) – Almost eight years after seizing power in a bloodless coup, Fiji’s military strongman Voreqe Bainimarama has declared himself a convert to democracy and appears headed for an election victory and the legitimacy he has long craved.
The 60-year-old has enthusiastically taken to the hustings in the lead up to the September 17 vote, touring the South Pacific nation in a blue bus emblazoned with the name of his FijiFirst party.
Bainimarama opens roads, visits schools and makes speeches at markets, with a message that only he can provide the stability needed for Fiji to flourish and heal the racial divisions of the past.
After stepping down as military leader to contest the election, he now talks of waging “a battle of ideas” and points to the constitution he introduced last year which enshrines principles such as one person, one vote and a secular state.
“I’m not in the business of scaring anyone. On the contrary, I want Fijians to know that they can face the future with confidence and hope,” Bainimarama said on a trip to Savusavu last week.
The campaign is a dramatic contrast to the manner in which Bainimarama came to power in December 2006, when he used the army to oust the democratically elected government of Laisenia Qarese in Fiji’s fourth coup since 1987.
A military man to his bootstraps, Bainimarama joined Fiji’s navy as an ordinary seaman aged 21 and earned a commission after two years, receiving training in New Zealand, Australia, the United States and Malaysia.
He served two stints as a UN peacekeeper in Sinai on his way to becoming commander of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces in 1999.
At the time of the 2006 coup, he said the army was the only institution disciplined enough to usher in real reform, describing it as a long overdue “clean up”.
The intervention was needed, he argued, to end widespread corruption and root out entrenched discrimination against ethnic Indians, who make up about 40 percent of the 900,000 population.
But key regional allies such as Australia and New Zealand labelled him a dictatorand imposed sanctions, while the Commonwealth and Pacific Islands Forum suspended Fiji’s membership when he reneged on a pledge to hold elections in 2009.
Supporters say Bainimarama has given protection to ethnic Indians, dismantled corrupt indigenous tribal elites and improved living standards with policies such as cheap education for all and spending on rural roads.
Yet observers – including UN chief Ban Ki-moon – have said the September 17 vote is needed to restore “legitimate government”.
Multi-national observers will be in Fiji to scrutinise the poll and, if Bainimarama wins in a process deemed free and fair, his government will gain the international acceptance that has so far eluded it.
Yet some question whether Bainimarama can shake the military mindset installed in a four-decade career in uniform and reinforced during his time in charge, when he has simply ruled by decree, brooking no dissent.
Amnesty International said last month that Bainimarama presided over a “climate of fear” in the island nation, citing allegations of intimidation and torture by officials.
Brij Lal, an Australian-based academic who was expelled from his native Fiji in 2009 for criticising the regime, said last year that Bainimarama had displayed “a pattern of behaviour that (does) not tolerate dissent or disagreement”.
“It raises the question of how (he) will function in a civilian administration that operates on the basis of consensus and compromise,” he added.
Bainimarama has dismissed suggestions Fiji could face yet another coup if he loses the election, saying that if defeated he would be content to “go and enjoy the rest of my life with my 14 grandchildren”.