The first inhabitants of Fiji came from Melanesia, some 3500 years ago, and established a hierarchical society based on clans. Little is known of the islanders’ history before the arrival of Europeans – an assortment of roving traders, missionaries and shipwrecked sailors – in the mid-17th century. Relations between the indigenous community and the new arrivals were reasonably good, founded on mutually beneficial commercial activity, until the establishment of plantations in the 1860s destabilized the economy: serious friction ensued between the Fijian chiefs and the Europeans
centering on the issue of land ownership. On a broader front, imperial rivalry in the Pacific between the major European powers was reaching a climax. In 1874, Fiji became a British colony. Large numbers of workers from India were imported to develop a plantation economy, accounting for the islands’ present ethnic mix and consequently the tension between the two main communities, which has blighted Fijian politics since the country’s independence in 1970.
For the next 17 years after independence, the moderate conservative Alliance Party governed without interruption. Foreign policy was (and still is) broadly pro-Western and geared towards the development of regional alliances, such as the South Pacific Forum. As a member of the Forum, Fiji, along with its small neighbors, vigorously campaigned against French nuclear testing. It is also a member of the Commonwealth, from which it was temporarily suspended in 1987 and again in 2000. The 1987 suspension followed the general election that same year, which removed the Alliance Party from office. The poll brought to power a coalition between the main ethnic Indian party, the National Federation Party, led by Marendra Chaudhry (see below), and the newly-formed Labor Party, which drew support from the growing multiracial trade union movement. The new Government had a majority of Indian ministers, which proved too much for many nationalist native Fijians (referred to as Taukei). This was the trigger for an army coup d’état, headed by Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka, with the declared intention of preserving Taukei rights.
Colonel Rabuka declared himself head of an interim military government and introduced a new constitution, under which blocs of seats in a new assembly were allocated to specific ethnic groups, thereby guaranteeing a Taukei majority. Under this format, the 1992 elections brought to power a coalition dominated by the principal ethnic Fijian party, Soqosoqo ni Vakavulewa ni Taukei (SVT). Rabuka assumed the premiership. However, under domestic and international pressure, the Rabuka government made several modifications to the constitution, to guarantee equal rights for all. By the time the revised version came into effect in 1998, Fiji’s poor economic performance had undermined the Rabuka government’s popularity. The Fijian Labor Party was now able to secure an absolute majority in the Vela and an Indian Prime Minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, took office. The result was anathema to militant Taukei, including businessman George Speight, who had lost lucrative franchises as a result of the change in government.
In May 2000, Speight organized a coup, holding Chaudhry and other ministers as hostages while he issued a series of demands. The other main power centers in Fiji at this point – the army and the Great Council of Chiefs – reacted cautiously. The stand-off lasted two months. After initially conceding to most of the rebel demands (including the dismissal of Chaudhry), the military, led by Commodore Frank Bainanarama, took control at the beginning of July. A few weeks later, the military moved against Speight and his followers, who were arrested. An interim government under the veteran Taukei politician, Ratu Josefa Iloilo, was installed with Laisenia Qarase as Premier. Following the elections in August 2001, a coalition government was formed between the the Fiji United Party and the smaller Conservative Alliance Party (Matanitu Vanua) and, despite the fact that most votes were won by the Labor Party. Laisenia Qarase remained as Prime Minister. The islands have since enjoyed reasonable stability, although nothing has been done to address the underlying causes of Fiji’s political problems. In June 2003, Fiji’s Supreme Court ruled that the government should admit Labor Party members into its ranks: Qarase demurred and Fiji now faces a major constitutional crisis.