Fiji’s interim government craves democratic legitimacy. Yet its members, and a supportive armed services, are unwilling to consider any option that carries the risk of losing power, or being held personally responsible for, actions they took to gain or hold power.

There are practical reasons why what is widely perceived as a lack of legitimacy is a problem for a country’s rulers. Close to home there is the possibility of foreign-held assets of individuals being frozen, or their international travel rights being restricted – as happened in recent memory to the rulers of Zimbabwe, Libya and Syria.

For the country, there is a cost to the enhanced isolation. Symbolically, in Fiji’s case, suspension from the Commonwealth. Economically, trading confidence is affected. And when it comes to dealing with natural disasters, such as Fiji’s floods earlier this year, it is more difficult to accept important outside assistance while maintaining the line that all opposition to your rule is being stoked up by interfering neighbours and former colonial masters.

Meanwhile, the home forces at your disposal – police and army – cannot be deployed effectively. Use the army to full capacity, and a disgruntled police force may make a move on the leadership. In the Philippines’ 1986 ‘People’s Power’ coup, key player General Ramos (later president) led the police at the point where he moved against his boss President Ferdinand Marcos.

Put simply, it may be nice to be in power, but doing it without any legitimacy – as Fiji’s ruler Commodore Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama has since a 2006 coup brought him to power – is awkward. Even styling himself as ‘interim’ prime minister, heading an ‘interim’ government, feels like an attempt to lend some legitimacy to governance arrangements that persistently failed to deliver promised elections.

The importance in his government of Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum and Director of Public Prosecutions, the New Zealand lawyer Christopher Pryde – both also prominent spokesmen deployed to rubbish government critics and to sound offended at implications of impropriety – feed the impression that this government is more than a little needy on this front. Hence, also, the rather shrill reaction to the Gazette’s report on the ‘rule of law’ in Fiji.

Six years on from the coup, though, Bainimarama needs to do something. He does not want to return to the 1997 constitution, which contains no provisions to give members of the government immunity from prosecution. So he has set up a Constitutional Commission. The commission process has coincided with an NGO being taken to court for merely mentioning our own Law Society Charity’s critical report on Fiji’s ‘rule of law’. Key opposition figures find themselves facing various charges – ‘tax avoidance’ charges, for example.

These parallel moves – where Bainimarama would get ‘immunity’ and a constitution, suppress the opposition before having an election, and then win the election – sounds a little like a governmental version of a pre-packaged insolvency, where the dictator comes out the other side clean, legit, and with nothing to pay.

Footwork like that is the stuff of dreams for heavy-handed governments who crave legitimacy, job security and immunity in retirement, the world over. If this all sounds not just difficult but well nigh impossible, that’s because experience shows it pretty much is.

Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor

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