Reconciling ethnicity and nation: contending discourses in Fiji's constitutional reform

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The process of Fiji's recent constitutional reform highlighted the dilemma of reconciling a principle of indigenous Fijian paramountcy with an imperative to shape a multiethnic nation for which non-Fijian, particularly Indian, contributions have long been crucial. The article addresses this dilemma in a discussion of the dominant themes in public discourse about constitutional change, and the relation of these themes to the values, pressures, and opportunities of three arenas: ethnic, national, and international. Three contrasting paradigms for the nation are identified: a universalist vision grounded in international human rights ideology, an exclusionary Fijian ethnonationalism affirmed most strongly in the army coups of 1987 and their aftermath, and an interethnic accommodation and partnership in which leading Fijian chiefs continue to have a stabilizing and legitimating function. The last model prevailed in the constitutional reform, demonstrating a continuity with trends in the shaping of political culture during colonial and early postcolonial times. The story of the constitutional reform is in part the saga of how the ethnonationalist coup maker who became prime minister, Sitiveni Rabuka, has tried to remake himself as a national leader. In the crucial role he eventually assumed as overseer of reform, he depended on support from chiefs and their councils. The paper concludes, against much of the postcoup literature on Fiji, that over the long term the major significance of the chiefs in the national political arena is not as a privileged "vested interest" group obstructing a solution to the problem of establishing a viable democratic polity, but as part of this solution.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)83-122
Number of pages40
JournalThe Contemporary Pacific: A Journal of Island Affairs
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2000


  • Chiefs
  • Constitutional reform
  • Ethnicity
  • Fiji
  • Nation
  • Political change
  • Rabuka


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