Reflections in the rain

Fiji has had four coups in 20 years, but Owen Sheers finds racial harmony survives despite the polit

It has been raining in Suva, Fiji's capital city, almost continuously for two weeks, from the damp air of early mornings to sudden, tropical downpours - total rain that turns roads into rivers and fills the dark beyond open windows with the sound of water boiling in the night. I was born in Suva. The city's smells, sounds, shower-room humidity and buckled streets all contributed to my earliest sensory blueprint. So I should be used to this rain, my neural pathways formed to the tune of its percussive beat. I should, on an unconscious level, be familiar with the sheer power of it, the way it wipes across the bay, blurring the skyline and drowning out the traffic under its static determination. After two weeks, however, I feel as beaten as the city's streets. Every time I've looked out of the windows I have seen rain. Its rattle and roar has played constantly upon the roof and its slanting bars across the sky have left me feeling imprisoned. So, when it finally breaks, I leave my work, like the rest of the city, and head outside.

I decide to go for a run along the foreshore. Jumping in a taxi, I get out at the abandoned colonial-era Grand Pacific Hotel, its whitewashed wooden planks greying like a smoker's teeth from the base up. The Grand Pacific is not the only landmark at the start of my run. On the street beside it, there is a roadblock manned by beret-wearing police carrying batons. Metal spike-strips lie between rows of bollards and red-and-white cross-poles are piled on the kerb like showjumps at a village gymkhana.

There are 12 roadblocks like this across Suva, the most visible legacy of the country's coup six months ago, Fiji's fourth in 20 years.

On the whole, things have calmed down since Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama seized power back in December, but away from the roadblocks there are plenty of other signs indicating that the country is far from settled. Australian and New Zealand sanctions are starting to bite at the pay packets of ordinary Fijians; airline staff with relatives in the military can no longer fly to these countries; dissenting voices have been called for "interview" at the barracks, after which either they are silent or they issue statements about the importance of not "destabilising the situation".

The foreshore path is busy tonight, everyone taking advantage of the rain-cleared air. I run with Fijians, baseball-capped groups of young Indo-Fijian women, I-Kiribati and Tongan students. Older Indo-Fijian and Fijian women stroll beside the choppy bay, chatting or pushing pushchairs. On the bridges, Chinese and Korean couples are line-fishing. On the outskirts of the city, a woman in a green-and-gold sari stands on her balcony looking out towards Nukulau Island where, until recently, George Speight, arrested after the country's third coup, had been serving his life sentence; he was transferred to Naboro Maximum-Security Prison in December.

The ethnic diversity of the foreshore path has, to varying degrees, been said to lie at the root of Fiji's coups. The first two, headed by Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka, were fuelled by stirrings of Fijian nationalism against increasing Indo-Fijian dominance in politics and business. The coup in 2000 was presented as another nationalist response, this time to the election of Mahendra Chaudhry and his largely Indo-Fijian government. But, as ever, at close quarters nothing is as clear and everything is more complicated.

There are many reasons why Bainimarama chose to take over in December. Depending on whom you talk to, his was either an anti-racist coup or the action of a fledgling dictator. What is clear to me, however, is that, away from politics, Fiji is remarkably multicultural. At cafes and in restaurants, I have often seen groups of people sitting down to eat which, between them, represent five or more ethnic groups. In the 19th century, through Britain's indentured labour policy and the resulting migration from India, Fiji's population doubled in a matter of years until 50 per cent was Indian. I've often wondered how the UK would have dealt with a similar situation.

Ash-grey clouds are piling up over the puckered hills across the bay and the air smells of rain again. I run back towards the city, accompanied by wheeling squalls of bats and wafts of rotten seaweed. I see an Indo-Fijian taxi driver parked under the low branches of a mango tree. He sits in the double front seat, arm around his Fijian girlfriend as they watch the clouds' steady advance.

As I move up into Suva's hills, the street names begin to speak of the country's past. Thurston, Brown, Gordon, Brewster and Amy. These are the names of British governors, administrators and businessmen who, following Fiji's cession to Britain in 1874, stamped their own and their children's names on the city's maps. These are also some of the people involved in the 1876 establishment of the Great Council of Chiefs, a non-elected constitutional body recently suspended by Bainimarama. Of all the coup's consequences, this is the one causing the most concern and discussion. The very fabric of Fijian society, in the form of the importance and standing of the chiefs, has been questioned. Support for the Great Council has come from an unlikely source - the European Union, which is threatening to withdraw $300m (roughly £152m) in sugar farming subsidies. A Fijian delegation has now returned from Brussels having signed up to a road map towards elections and normalcy by 2009.

The older, colonial streets of Suva get me confused, so I'm surprised when I emerge opposite the maternity unit of the Colonial War Memorial Hospital. As the first big drops of rain land on my shoulders, I stand there a while, panting and looking at the building where I met the world. My birth wasn't the easiest and my mother had to have a Caesarean section. In the end, however, both mother and child were fine. And as I begin to walk back to my lodgings through the suddenly soaking streets, I find myself hoping with a renewed passion that, with the EU as midwife, Fiji's most recent delivery from trouble will, eventually, be similarly fortunate.

© Owen Sheers, 2007. Owen Sheers's debut novel, "Resistance", is published on 7 June by Faber & Faber (£14.99)

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia: The beggar becomes the belligerent

The Alternative
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"I won't do this forever": meet Alternative leader, Uffe Elbæk – Denmark's Jeremy Corbyn

The Alternative party leader speaks frankly about his party's journey from being seen as a comedy sideshow to taking nine seats in the Danish elections.

In Britain, popular anti-politics sentiment has engulfed the Labour party, through Jeremy Corbyn. In Denmark's splintered, assorted political landscape, it has created a party called the Alternative. The barely two-year-old party was depicted as a comedic sideshow before June's elections. But with nine of 179 seats, they embarrassed all electoral predictions, including their own. Their rise owes to a growing European gripe with politics as usual, as well as to growing chasms within Danish politics.

"I don't want to do this forever. I want to be a pensioner, lay on a beach somewhere, write books and make money from speeches." Embracing his maverick figure, the 61-year-old witty, self-deprecating leader, Uffe Elbæk, has become one of the most resonant voices in Danish politics. As an ex-culture minister he was tarred by conflict of interest accusations leading to him to voluntarily step down as minister in 2012. He was later cleared of wrongdoing but the ridicule in the media stuck. His re-emergence in Danish politics is no longer trivial. His party has struck a match on a sentiment he claims is not European but international.

"What we see across Europe is a growing divide between politicians and their electorate. We are trying to bridge that divide and move from a representative democracy to a far more involving democracy. You see the same in the Scottish Referendum, in Syriza, in Podemos, in a way in Bernie Sanders and, of course, in Jeremy Corbyn".

In tandem with the rise of populist parties in Europe, they've capitalised on a discontent with mainstream politics, perceived spin and sound bite. In the last elections, the Alternative refused to directly persuade the electorate to vote for them, instead encouraging them to vote on their convictions.

“We are critical of the neoliberal doctrine from Thatcher and Reagan and growing inequality," explains Elbæk. "But I believe deeply in human potential and creating a more entrepreneurial, creative society based on progressive values".

The party decides its policies in what they call "political laboratories" where members and non-members are invited to share, hone, and develop policy ideas. The party is in many respects what it says on the tin. Despite flinching away from left and right political categories, they are staunchly pro-environment and pro-immigration.

"A lot of progressives do a lot of good things in the grassroots, but the reality is that few want to go into the big party machines." The Alternative has been a huge grassroots built campaign, attracting exactly those types of voters. It has gained over 6,000 members in its first two years, a remarkable feat as membership across Danish political parties steadily declines.

The party appeals to a desire, more prominent on the left of the Danish electorate, for a straight-talking, green party not overtly party political but reminiscent of conventionally Scandinavian values of tolerance and consensus. It is hawkish about whether socialist-inspired thinking is condusive to modern challenges, but similarly it believes in harnessing public support directly. They are a growing albeit slightly hippy and unconventional vehicle for political expression.

The migrant crisis has exposed chasms in Danish politics. Controversial proposals to advertise anti-refugee adverts, by integration minister Inger Støjberg, have sparked widespread concern. From across politics and from business, there has been a steady reel of expressed concern that Denmark risks creating a perception of intolerance to foreigners.

A private Danish group called People Reaching Out, published adverts in the same four Lebanese newspapers that ran the anti-refugee ads. Crowdfunding over £16,000, they replicated the original ads writing, "sorry for the hostility towards refugees expressed here. From people's to people's we wish to express our compassion and sympathy to anyone fleeing war and despair".

Michala Bendixen, who heads the campaign group, Refugee's Welcome, wrote an op-ed in The Daily Star, one of the Lebanese papers which carried the ad. She stated that, "the adverts give a completely distorted picture of the situation", clarifying that the Danish asylum process was amongst the fastest in Europe.

Støjberg's reforms to immigration and almost 50 per cent cuts to refugee benefits have made her a controversial figure but despite much criticism, topped a recent poll of ministers in the current government that voters felt were doing well. Largely on the back of a hardline position on immigration, the Danish People's Party won 21 per cent of the popular vote in this year's elections. Similarly to many countries across Europe, the migrant crisis has been emotive and polarising. On that divide, the Alternative has been categorical.

"In Denmark there is one thing happening in politics and another in the streets," says Elbæk. "There is a disgraceful lack of empathy from politicians but the reaction from the Danish people has been really touching. Suddenly we were seeing hundreds of refugees on our motorways, and it came as a reality shock to the Danish people. But they responded to it by offering shelter, food, water, and blankets."

Denmark's new government is hardening its position on immigrants and refugees. The split reaction reflects a more polarised terrain. There is a debate about what Denmark's values really are, and whether the migrant crisis betrays or protects them. Within it, the Alternative, partly motley, but with a non-trivial and rising electoral appeal, are an increasingly influential voice.