Not all will go the strongman’s way

FB DeskIF GUNS were all that were needed to manage countries well, more of the world would be run by military officers. But soldiers tend to be poor at handling their nation’s affairs, and so it has proved in the Pacific island state of Fiji. There the strongman, Commodore Voreqe “Frank” Bainimarama, who seized power in a 2006 coup, announced on March 21st that he was scrapping his plans for the constituent assembly that was supposed to deliberate his scheduled new constitution. Three months before that, Mr Bainimarama had ditched a constitution drawn up by his own appointed commission, asking his attorney-general to come up with a new one more to his liking. This second attempt was published on the very day that the idea of an assembly was scrapped.

Troubled Fiji has experienced three coups since independence in 1970, but last year it seemed to be enjoying a political renaissance. In July a Fiji Constitutional Commission (FCC) was appointed, and a constitutional scholar, Yash Ghai, with experience of working on the Kenyan and Nepalese constitutions, became its head. The FCC attracted over 7,000 submissions, including from those political parties most firmly opposed to the coup-spawned government. Such was the euphoria around the process that the armed forces, in their own submission, said that the FCC had triggered “a sense of belonging culminating in a national pride” and a “togetherness which we must continue to foster”.

This was not enough for Mr Bainimarama, however, who accused the FCC of consorting with the opposition. The commission’s report was completed in December but promptly suppressed by the security forces (though copies circulated freely on the internet). The government’s rewritten and thinned-down constitution dramatically reduces the powers of the president, and makes the prime minister commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The army, in turn, is given a strong supervisory role in the future affairs of the nation.

Why the abandonment of plans for an appointed constituent assembly? Timing is one reason. The assembly had been scheduled to begin in January, but three months were lost in the constitution’s redrafting. More importantly, such a gathering would have again empowered a popular body to deliberate on the affairs of the nation. By firmly reasserting his control, Mr Bainimarama may perhaps have avoided the risk of troublesome upstarts seizing control over the transition. But he has also blown his chance to preside over the creation of a new political order that is durable and legitimate.

A day after he released his draft constitution, Mr Bainimarama, a rugby enthusiast, casually revealed during a training session at the national stadium that he intends to run in the next election. The announcement had long been expected. The difficulty is that, as Fiji’s military leader will soon find out, campaigning for election will also empower the very voices he has sought repeatedly to silence.