|Ethnic and religious conflict dominates the news around the world these days, the Middle East being, of course, front and centre. But even relatively neglected parts of the globe, such as the South Pacific, have also seen their share.
Such has been the sad story of the island state of Fiji ever since it gained its independence from Britain in 1970.
Indigenous Fijians account for 54 per cent of the countrys 900,000 people, Indo-Fijians 38 percent. The native Fijians have historically been opposed to sharing power with the Indo-Fijians, who came to the islands from India between 1879 and 1916 to work as labourers on the sugar plantations.
The ethnic Fijians mainly support the Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL) or United Fiji Party, led by prime minister Laisenia Qarase, while the Indians have largely rallied behind Mahendra Chaudhrys Fiji Labour Party (FLP).
In a general election held this past May, the SDL bested the FLP 36 seats to 31. Between them, they won almost all the seats in the 71-member House of Representatives, demonstrating anew the tremendous political hostility between the two communities. Moderate or trans-ethnic parties were left in the electoral cold. Indeed, as many remarked in exasperation: Another election, yet more ethnic animosity.
The complex Fijian electoral system has contributed to the polarization. It allocates 23 seats to ethnic Fijians, 19 to Indo-Fijians, three to minority groups, and one to Rotuman Islanders. The remaining 25 are "open" seats, with candidates of all communities competing for votes cast on a common voters roll. Each Fijian voter casts two ballots, one in a "communal" constituency, the other in a relatively heterogenous "open" seat.
Qarase won all 23 Fijian communal seats, Chaudhry every one of the 19 Indian seats, and so the outcome rested on the "open" seats, which the SDL took, 13 to 12.
Fiji uses the alternative vote (AV) preference system, in which a candidate must win an absolute majority in each riding. Voters rank candidates in their order of preference, and contestants with the lowest totals are progressively eliminated, their votes reallocated to others according to the electors choices, until a winner, who by definition has more than 50 percent of the total, emerges.
The system was designed so that moderate parties able to reach across the ethnic divide would have an advantage, since presumably they would be the beneficiaries of second or third choices from both ethnic and Indo-Fijians, and therefore could overtake the more extreme parties as the counting progressed. But this has not materialized.
Why the ethnic polarization? Fiji is a classical plural society, one in which several communities form economically and socially identifiable segments, yet are linked in the overall social structure of the country.
The native and Indo-Fijians have different cultural, religious, economic and linguistic identities, with little common ground. There is a cultural division of labour, so that each economic sector becomes the preserve of a particular group, resulting in ethnic enclaves.
From 1970 until 1987, one of Fijis powerful paramount chiefs, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, governed the country. Indians had come to dominate commerce and the professions, and were the mainstay of a rural economy which depended on the sugar cane industry, but they took a back seat when it came to exercising power.
All of that changed in 1987, when the newly-formed Labour Party won a general election. One month later, an army colonel, Sitiveni Rabuka, overthrew the government and installed himself as ruler of Fiji.
Rabukas new Fijian Republic would spend the next decade as an economic and political pariah and he finally allowed a return to civilian rule. A new democratic constitution was promulgated in 1997 and in the 1999 general election, the revived Labour Party emerged with an absolute majority.
For the first time in their history, Fijians found themselves governed by an Indo-Fijian politician, Mahendra Chaudhry but not for long.
Once again ethnic Fijian nationalists resorted to violence and in 2000 Chaudhrys government was overthrown in a coup. Following a period of political chaos, a new government, led by an ethnic Fijian, Laisenia Qarase, emerged.
The 1987 and 2000 coups shook Indian confidence and many expressed anger at their treatment by fellow citizens who considered them little better than aliens. Since then, more than 100,000 Indians have left the country, professionals in particular. Many have come to Canada, including Calgary.
A basic definition of nationhood is the notion that a people share at least a minimal sense of common fate and destiny, and that when one part suffers, others empathize. Where loyalty to the state and the ethnically-based group are perceived as being in irreconcilable conflict, ethnic identity typically proves the more potent.
As political scientist Joel Migdal has noted, where ethnic and linguistic factionalization remains high, state institutions find themselves "at loggerheads with kinship and ethnic groups." Certainly, this has been the unhappy history of Fiji.
So the election process itself, instead of evolving into a mechanism of unity and legitimacy, became a battleground of inter-ethnic strife. This proved to be the case, as usual, in 2006.
Academics Robert Cooper and Mats Berdal remind us that the "voluntary acceptance of majority decisions implies a strong sense of common destiny," which presupposes a political community to which everyone belongs. It remains to be seen whether such a state of affairs will eventually prevail in Fiji.
But there was one positive outcome following the May vote. Under Fijis constitution, parties which win more than eight seats are entitled to seats in cabinet in proportion to their popular support. This section was designed to force Fijis political parties to cooperate rather than compete for absolute power.
After the 2001 election, in which the SDL also beat the FLP, Qarase did not offer the Labour Party any positions, despite this provision. This time, the prime minister has done so, and Chaudhry accepted despite strenuous opposition from some of Chaudhrys own FLP deputies. Perhaps this offers a ray of hope for the future.
Henry Srebrnik, a professor of political studies at the University of Prince Edward Island, Charlottetown, researches the politics of multi-cultural island societies.