Challenges to Pacific democracy

| January 4, 2023

In 2022, considerable pressure was put on democratic norms and practices in the Pacific Islands. Taken together, the year’s events paint a bleak picture of democratic resilience in the region. But there are also bright spots of progress to celebrate, notably in terms of women’s political representation.


The two largest Pacific Islands states both went to the polls in 2022. The Papua New Guinean (PNG) general election was plagued by delays, issues with the electoral roll and concerning incidents of violence, resulting in many fatalities and thousands of displaced citizens. Transparency International PNG stated that the election ‘continued the trend of deterioration in the quality of elections in PNG’.

The general election in Fiji — pitched as a showdown between two former coup leaders, the incumbent Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama and challenger Sitiveni Rabuka — resulted in a hung parliament, with the Social Liberal Democratic Party (SODELPA) holding the balance of power.

In the aftermath of the election, amid messy negotiations to form coalition government, there were serious concerns that a peaceful transfer of power would not take place. Rabuka accused Bainimarama of ‘sowing fear and chaos’ in an attempt to maintain power. But ultimately, an agreement was reached between Rabuka’s People’s Alliance, SODELPA and the National Federation Party. On Christmas Eve, Rabuka was sworn in as Prime Minister, a significant milestone in Fiji’s democratic history.

Across the region, there are concerning trends related to the practice of democracy between elections too. In Kiribati — which withdrew from the Pacific Islands Forum in July 2022 — the government attempted to deport one of its high court justices, David Lambourne, who is also the husband of Kiribati’s opposition leader.

In the aftermath, four other senior judges were suspended, leaving the country without an operational high court. Kiribati’s attorney-general was appointed acting chief justice in October. The New Zealand Law Society argued that this appointment ‘would challenge the independence of the judiciary and constitutional separation of powers that is fundamental to a functioning democracy’.

In Solomon Islands, the upcoming election — originally scheduled to be called by May 2023 — was delayed until 2024, with the government claiming it could not afford to host the Pacific Games and hold an election in the same year. Peter Kenilorea Jr, a member of the opposition and outspoken critic of the government, labelled it ‘an authoritarian move’. Extending terms of government has also been done before in the region, notably in Samoa in the early 1990s.

These moves came after the controversial security pact that Solomon Islands signed with China earlier in 2022, which prompted significant concern and renewed attention from Western powers. Solomon Islands and Kiribati switched diplomatic recognition of Taiwanese sovereignty to China in 2019.

While concerning, none of the issues highlighted above are new. Electoral issues in PNG and constraints on civil liberties in Fiji have been well-documented by academics and non-governmental organisations. The use of foreign judges and the potential use of deportation as a threat against them has been a long-standing issue, particularly in the former British colonies of the Pacific.

In the postcolonial era, a perennial debate in the region has been around democracy and whether it is a ‘foreign flower’, unsuited for the Pacific environment. This belies the fact that, on the whole, the region has a quite extraordinary postcolonial history of democratic continuity. The majority of Pacific states have unbroken track records of regularly scheduled elections and peaceful transfers of power.

But the crisis narrative has continuously emerged. In the late 1980s, former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans noted increased Australian interest in the region as a result of political turmoil in Fiji, New Caledonia and Vanuatu, saying the Fiji coups in particular represented ‘a blow to democratic principle’. In the early 2000s, the Australian government labelled Melanesia an ‘arc of instability’ and think tanks warned that without external intervention, failed states would emerge in the region.

While there is certainly reason for concern about the current state of democracy in the Pacific, there are also opportunities for optimism. Despite fears of military intervention, the election in Fiji resulted in a peaceful transfer of power, an encouraging sign for democratic consolidation. Another promising development in the region is the increased participation of women in politics, with further advances in this space following the 2021 election of Samoa’s first woman prime minister, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa.

After years of languishing at the bottom of global league tables with zero women members of parliament, both PNG and Vanuatu saw a change this year. Rufina Peter and Kessy Sawang were elected in PNG, while Gloria Julia King won a seat in Vanuatu’s October snap election. Following by-elections in Tonga in November, there is now — for the first time ever — at least one elected woman member of every Pacific parliament.

2023 will bring renewed attention from the United States and other Western powers as the Pacific once again becomes a site of geopolitical contestation. Democracy support and promotion programs will play an important, but perhaps contested, role.

Elections and parliaments are the cornerstones of democratic systems, but the strength of democracy relies on a broader ecosystem encompassing the media, civil society, education systems and the inclusion of historically underrepresented groups. Democratic norms and practices have a solid foundation in the Pacific, but the events of 2022 prove that this cannot be taken for granted.

This article was published by the East Asia Forum.