The Pacific Ocean is a beacon of hope, with the call for democracy guiding the region towards progress, prosperity, and peace. The region, with its diverse nations and cultures, has embraced democracy as a vital tool for shaping their collective destiny. Promoting democracy is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor, as each nation’s path is unique. However, the shared commitment to democratic principles unites Pacific nations in their quest for a brighter future. The Pacific region serves as an inspiring example for the world, demonstrating that principles of freedom, justice, and equality can pave the way to prosperity, even in geographically remote and culturally diverse regions.
The Papua New Guinean (PNG) general election was marked by deterioration in election quality, while the Fiji general election was a showdown between former coup leaders, Frank Bainimarama and Sitiveni Rabuka, resulting in a hung parliament with the Social Liberal Democratic Party (SODELPA) holding the balance of power. Despite concerns about a peaceful transfer of power, an agreement was reached between Rabuka’s People’s Alliance and the National Federation Party, and on Christmas Eve, Rabuka was sworn in as Prime Minister, marking a significant milestone in Fiji’s democratic history.
The Pacific Islands region is facing challenges in democracy, with Kiribati withdrawing from the Pacific Islands Forum in July 2022, leading to the deportation of high court justice David Lambourne and the suspension of four other senior judges. The country’s attorney-general was appointed acting chief justice in October, arguing it would challenge the judiciary’s independence and constitutional separation of powers. The upcoming election in Solomon Islands was delayed until 2024 due to the Pacific Games and the controversial security pact signed with China in 2022. In 2019, both Solomon Islands and Kiribati switched diplomatic recognition of Taiwanese sovereignty to China.
These issues are not new, as electoral issues in PNG and constraints on civil liberties in Fiji have been well-documented. The use of foreign judges and potential deportation threats against them have been a long-standing issue, particularly in former British colonies of the Pacific. The region has a remarkable postcolonial history of democratic continuity, with most Pacific states having unbroken track records of regularly scheduled elections and peaceful power transfers. The crisis narrative in the Pacific region has been ongoing since the late 1980s, with political turmoil in Fiji, New Caledonia, and Vanuatu causing increased Australian interest. In the early 2000s, the Australian government labeled Melanesia an ‘arc of instability’, warning that without external intervention, failed states would emerge. Despite concerns about the current state of democracy, there are opportunities for optimism.
The election in Fiji resulted in a peaceful transfer of power, indicating democratic consolidation. The increased participation of women in politics, particularly in Samoa, has also seen progress. In 2021, PNG and Vanuatu saw changes with the election of Rufina Peter and Kessy Sawang, and by-elections in Tonga in November, bringing at least one elected woman member of every Pacific parliament. As the Pacific becomes a site of geopolitical contestation in 2023, democracy support and promotion programs will play a crucial role. The strength of democracy relies on a broader ecosystem encompassing media, civil society, education systems, and the inclusion of historically underrepresented groups.
The Pacific’s Democratic Odyssey: Democracy’s Role in Development
The Pacific region, comprising 22 countries and territories, has seen a remarkable transformation in democracy since its transition in 1998. Indonesia, the world’s fourth-most populous nation, has held five successful presidential elections and peaceful power transitions, showcasing the power of a people’s voice. Democracy in the Pacific is not just an abstract concept; it is a driving force behind development, with a correlation between democracy and economic growth.
Countries that embrace democratic principles tend to have stronger institutions, better governance, and a more conducive environment for entrepreneurship and innovation. Fiji, a nation that has been steadfast in its commitment to democracy, has returned to democracy in 2014, catalyzing economic growth in tourism, agriculture, and manufacturing sectors. Investors are attracted to stable democracies, providing capital for infrastructure development and job creation. The Pacific region faces challenges in promoting democracy, including inclusivity of marginalized communities, addressing corruption, and maintaining political stability. Climate change poses a threat to many Pacific island nations, complicating sustainable development. However, these challenges present opportunities for innovation and cooperation.
Pacific nations can tackle these issues by embracing sustainable practices, harnessing renewable energy, and building regional alliances. International partnerships, such as the United Nations, the Pacific Islands Forum, and bilateral partnerships with Australia and New Zealand, provide resources, technical assistance, and diplomatic support. The international community can foster political stability and democratic resilience through capacity building, electoral support, and conflict prevention mechanisms.