The Politics Of Ethnicity In The Fiji Islands: Competing Ideologies Of Indigenous Paramountcy and Individual Equality In Political Dialogue

Date: Sep, 2002
ODID Working Paper No. 90
Author(s): Virginia Horscroft (QEH)

Politics in the Fiji Islands is characterised by competitive processes that draw on and reshape ethnic cleavages. Indigenous Fijians and Indian indentured labourers were incorporated separately into the colonial state and political economy under British rule. Institutionalised ethnic divisions were not significantly restructured during Fiji's negotiated independence in 1970. In the process of building a national polity, these institutions embody a tension, being both a means to integrate ethnic groups into the state and a means to perpetuate ethnic cleavages. Throughout the Twentieth Century, ideologies of Indigenous paramountcy and individual equality have competed in Fiji's political dialogue. They represent different conceptions of political rights for ethnic groups and individuals; differences not yet resolved into a conception of common national citizenship with wide acceptance. The ideology of paramountcy and its ostensible incompatibility with equality has structured the rhetorical shape of military and civilian coups overthrowing democracy in 1987 and 2000. This political instability has severely impeded Fiji's social, political and economic development. This thesis focuses on contests between ideologies of Indigenous paramountcy and individual equality in political dialogue in Fiji. It asks whether the concepts are necessarily incompatible. In showing that they are not, it seeks mutual ground on which to base a conception of shared citizenship of an inclusive national polity. This search invokes the idea that the centrality of paramountcy and equality to existing political identities means political inclusiveness may be better achieved by building on these concepts, rather than dismissing either. The thesis argues that notions of paramountcy and equality contain the potential for an inclusive national polity that respects all its citizens and is attuned to the importance of protecting Indigenous culture and socio-economic wellbeing. Although many political actors in Fiji share this vision, ethnic polarisation in the wake of the 2000 coup enabled extremism to triumph in the 2001 national elections. The thesis draws its analysis from this election campaign, as an intensified debate on paramountcy and equality. It emphasises the inter-connections between political dialogue and historical, cultural and socio-economic contexts. In particular, the state threatens to impede social forces towards political inclusiveness. Its increasing role in advancing individual economic and political opportunities according to ethnic membership is fostering an Indigenous middle and elite class reliant on and promoting values of Indigenous privilege and political exclusion.

ODID Author(s)