Until 2013, Fiji’s constitution reflected the multiracial nature of its society. It provided for a parliamentary democracy with a bicameral parliament comprising an elected House of Representatives and appointed Senate. Some seats in the House of Representatives were reserved for ethnic Fijians, some for Indo-Fijians and some for other ethnic groups. Following the 1987 coups, Fiji became a republic, with a President appointed by the Great Council of Chiefs (Bose Levu Vakaturaga, a body comprising the heads of the ethnic Fijian clans), for a five-year term as head of state. The President appointed as Prime Minister the member of the House of Representatives who commanded the support of the majority. Constitutional amendments required a 75 per cent majority in both houses.
Under the 1997 constitution, the number of seats in the House of Representatives was increased to 71, 25 of which were opened to all ethnic groups (elected by universal suffrage), while the remainder were to be elected by separate communal electoral rolls in the following proportions: ethnic Fijians 23; Indo-Fijians 19; other ethnic groups three; and Rotuman Islanders one. The Senate had 32 members, 14 appointed by the Great Council of Chiefs, nine by the Prime Minister, eight by the Leader of the Opposition and one by the Council of Rotuma. The prime ministership, but not the presidency, was opened to all Fijians. In addition, the first-past-the-post electoral system was replaced by an alternative preference system and voting became mandatory. Parties taking more than ten per cent of the votes in a general election had the right to a number of cabinet posts in proportion to the numbers of votes received.
A new constitution was promulgated on 6 September 2013. It includes a bill of rights and provides for a single-chamber legislature, Parliament, with 50 members directly elected by universal adult suffrage for a term of no more than four years from its first session. All Fijian citizens from the age of 18 are entitled to vote in a single national constituency and under a system of proportional representation. Parliament elects a non-executive President from a field of two candidates, one nominated by the Prime Minister and one by the Leader of the Opposition. The presidential term is three years and a President can serve no more than two terms. After an election, the leader of the party with the most seats in Parliament becomes Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is head of government.
In October 2000, President Ratu Josefa Iloilo appointed a constitutional review commission to recommend a new constitutional arrangement for Fiji. In December 2000, Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon appointed Justice Pius N Langa, Deputy President of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, as his special envoy to help accelerate the restoration of democracy and promote national unity.
A general election was held under the new constitution from 25 August to 5 September 2001 when 26 political parties participated (ten more than in 1999). In a poll that was judged by international including Commonwealth observers to reflect the will of the people, Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL) took 32 seats, pushing the Fiji Labour Party (FLP – 27 seats) into second place, followed by Matanitu Vanua (six). SDL leader and head of the interim government Laisenia Qarase was sworn in as Prime Minister. Following the country’s return to democratic government, the suspension from Commonwealth councils (which had been in force since June 2000) was lifted in December 2001.
A row soon erupted, however, when Qarase failed to appoint any FLP members to his cabinet or the Senate. An impasse continued, with Qarase only prepared to appoint ministers he felt he could work with, and FLP leader Mahendra Chaudhry insisting on his constitutional rights. In February 2002 the High Court ruled Qarase had failed to comply with the constitution when he appointed his cabinet and in July 2003 the Supreme Court upheld this judgment. But the impasse endured, with the two parties unable to agree on a list of cabinet appointments, the key issues being the number of FLP members (14 or 17) and whether Chaudhry himself should be included.
The May 2006 general election was won by SDL with 36 seats, while FLP took 31 seats and the United People’s Party (UPP) two. Commonwealth observers present reported that the result reflected the wishes of the people. Qarase continued as Prime Minister and, in accordance with the constitution, appointed a cabinet in which nine posts were filled by FLP. FLP leader Chaudhry declined a position for himself.
In December 2006 the army took control of government dismissing the Prime Minister and President; and head of the army Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama assumed the presidency. This coup was immediately condemned by the international community and at a meeting of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) on 8 December Fiji’s military regime was suspended from the councils of the Commonwealth pending restoration of democracy and the rule of law in the country. In January 2007 Bainimarama reinstated the President and became interim Prime Minister.
Fiji’s Court of Appeal ruled in April 2009 that the military coup, which ousted the elected government in 2006, and the interim government that followed it were illegal. The ruling requested that the President appoint an interim Prime Minister and call a general election. In response, President Iloilo announced that he had abrogated the constitution and dismissed all the judges. He appointed himself as head of government and subsequently reinstated Bainimarama as Prime Minister.
In July 2009 Bainimarama announced the retirement of Iloilo from the presidency; Vice-President Ratu Epeli Nailatikau assumed the role of acting President and in November 2009 was confirmed as President.
Following Fiji’s suspension from the councils of the Commonwealth in December 2006, sustained efforts were made by the Commonwealth to engage the interim government to promote a return to constitutional democracy and to encourage a national dialogue aimed at tackling the underlying issues that led to military coups. On 1 September 2009, having failed to satisfy CMAG that it was committed to a timetable for restoring democracy, Fiji was fully suspended from the Commonwealth. In announcing this, Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma said that the Commonwealth remained open to engaging with the interim government towards the restoration of constitutional democracy.
At their biennial meeting in Perth, Australia, in October 2011, Commonwealth Heads of Government urged the interim government of Fiji to restore democracy without further delay, to respect human rights and to uphold the rule of law, and reaffirmed that the Commonwealth should continue to remain engaged with Fiji and support efforts towards that end.
On 14 March 2014, at CMAG’s 43rd meeting, ministers recognised progress made to hold elections by September 2014 and decided that Fiji’s full suspension from the Commonwealth should be changed to suspension from the councils of the Commonwealth, thus permitting it once again to participate in a range of Commonwealth activities, including the Commonwealth Games.
The general election held on 17 September 2014 – the first under the 2013 constitution – was won by the FijiFirst Party with 59 per cent of votes (32 seats); turnout was 84 per cent. The Social Democratic Liberal Party secured 28 per cent of votes (15 seats); the National Federation Party 5 per cent (three seats); the People’s Democratic Party 3 per cent (no seats) and the FLP 2 per cent (no seats). A multinational observer group said that the elections were credible and broadly represented the will of the Fijian people.
Fiji was reinstated as a full member of the Commonwealth on 26 September 2014, following a decision by CMAG, at its 44th meeting in New York, when Ministers recognised the credible elections held on 17 September 2014 and the assumption of office by a democratically elected government.