13 Sep 2014

Fiji election only first step to democracy, warns Australian academic

5:11 am on 13 September 2014

Australia has been warned against rushing to buddy-up with Fiji after Wednesday's long-awaited election.

The Lowy Institute says doing so risks setting a low bar for full democratic restoration from the military government and could set a dangerous precedent for the maintenance of democracy throughout the region.

The poll is Fiji's first since then Commodore, Frank Bainimarama, seized power in a military coup in 2006.

The Institute's Melanesia programme director, Jenny Hayward-Jones, says even if the elections are free and fair it will not necessarily put the nation back on a solid path to democracy.

She says elections should be seen as the start of a process of restoring democracy, not the end.

Ms Hayward-Jones says press freedom, judicial independence and empowering opposition MPs to hold the government to account are essential building blocks as well.

She says the absence of a credible opposition for many years means Mr Bainimarama and his Fiji First Party have extraordinary election campaign prominence.

Ms Hayward-Jones says Australia needs to be cautious about signalling too quickly its acceptance of his democratic legitimacy,and must avoid compromising efforts to promote democratic change for the sake of increasing regional influence.