Crisis island

Print edition : May 22, 2009

FIJI was plunged into another political crisis in April, which resulted in the military regime tightening its control over the country through the abrogation of the Constitution and the declaration of a 30-day state of emergency. These events are a severe setback to the possibility of restoration of the democratic process in the country in the near future.

On April 9, Fijis Court of Appeal ruled that the military coup in December 2006 against the elected government of Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase was illegal as was President Ratu Josefa Iloilos appointment of an interim administration headed by a military commander, Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama.

The appellate court overturned a Supreme Court verdict that had rejected a case filed by the ousted Prime Minister questioning the legality of the coup. The Supreme Court had held that the appointment of the interim government by the President was legal on the grounds that in the absence of mala fides or arbitrariness the existence only and not the exercise of the presidential powers to appoint ministers was capable of review. It added that the events of December 2006 were relevant to that determination. It upheld the Presidents actions as valid and lawful in the exercise of prerogative powers of the head of state to act for the public good in a crisis. Government counsel had argued that Iloilo had exercised his powers under the Constitution to dismiss Qarases government in the face of a grave political crisis.

The appellate court, however, ruled that Iloilo had unlawfully purported to validate the 2006 coup that brought Bainimarama to power. The three Australian judges on the bench of the Court of Appeals rejected the Attorney Generals contention that if the ruling were implemented, the country would be left with a dangerous vacuum. They stated: In our opinion, the only appropriate course at this time is for elections to be held to enable Fiji to get a fresh start.

In his address to the nation after the appellate court ruling, Iloilo said that the court had held that the appointment of the interim government by him was invalid as the 1997 Constitution did not give express written powers to do so. The court held that he should exercise his discretion and appoint a caretaker Prime Minister and that the appointee should not be Qarase or Bainimarama. Iloilo pointed out that there were no written powers for such a step either. Indicating that the government would appeal the ruling, government lawyers asked for a stay on the judgment, which the court rejected. Iloilo said that the result of the courts judgment was that in practical legal terms Fiji did not have a government in place.

Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama taking the oath as caretaker Prime Minister on April 11. Fijis President reappointed Bainimarama to head the government a day after a court ruled his 2006 coup illegal.-REUTERS

The appellate courts verdict has created a dangerous political vacuum in Fiji. The interim regime was held invalid without a replacement and only a direction was made to the President to appoint a new interim government. The court said: In the events that have occurred it would be lawful for the President as a matter of necessity to appoint a caretaker Prime Minister to advise dissolution of the Parliament and issuance of writs for election of members for the House of Representatives.

After the courts verdict, Bainimarama resigned, but the very next day Iloilo abrogated the Constitution, sacked the judiciary, declared a state of emergency and reappointed Bainimarama interim Prime Minister together with his nine-member Cabinet. The President said that the order was for peace, order and good government. A military dictatorship that takes over power by the show of force does so in total disregard for the law or constitutional functioning; it is unlikely to give up power merely on a court ruling. Fiji has been pushed back into a deeper political morass as it no longer has a Constitution but is run by decrees. Under the Administration of Justice Decree 2009, the Fiji High Court has refused to accept civil suits relating to the abrogation of the Constitution. The reappointed regime promulgated the Public Emergency Regulations 2009, which gives the army and the police more powers to maintain public safety. The media became an immediate target under the Emergency Regulations as publishers and television stations were directed to submit all news material for clearance before publication or broadcast. In protest, Fiji Times, Fijis oldest newspaper, appeared with a blank page and the main television channel did not telecast the regular evening news bulletin. All constitutional office holders, including the Superviser of Elections, the Ombudsman, the Auditor General, the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Commissioner of Police and the Governor of the Reserve Bank of Fiji, were replaced by the newly reappointed regime.

The events in Fiji come at a most unfortunate time. The country was in the process of initiating a political dialogue between the military regime and the political parties under a process termed the Presidents Political Dialogue Forum (PPDF). Though the dialogue was at the preliminary stage, it was a beginning of sorts. Three meetings had already taken place and had been attended by the smaller political parties, which had agreed to a mechanism that would have allowed the United Nations and the Commonwealth to mediate the PPDF. The U.N., the Commonwealth and the Pacific Islands Forum, a regional body, were slowly edging the interim regime towards setting a definite date for elections.

The reappointment of Bainimarama and the abrogation of the Constitution was roundly criticised by the U.N. Security Council, the European Union, and Fijis larger neighbours, Australia and New Zealand. The Commonwealth condemned the developments, while U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that it was a clear rejection of the legal process. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said that Fiji was under a military dictatorship. The reappointment of Bainimarama as Fijis interim Prime Minister was a sham and the events surrounding his appointment had taken his country down an even darker path, New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully said.

The E.U. has already suspended aid to Fiji. The United States expressed its deep disappointment. The Security Council expressed concern, termed it a step backwards and called for the restoration of the democratic process that Fiji had been undertaking in cooperation with its regional and international partners, including the U.N.

President Josefa Iloilo (right) arrives to swear in Bainimarama.-AFP

Fijis smaller Pacific island neighbours had a more tempered response to the developments. These island nations, which have greater empathy and understanding of the complexities of the Fiji situation, argued for a different approach from the Australian and New Zealand policies of economic sanctions. President Anote Tong of Kiribati stressed the need to keep the dialogue going with the military regime.

Prime Minister Derek Sikua of the Solomon Islands said that the Pacific Islands Forum should not rush into implementing sanctions against the Fiji government as not all the Pacific nations agreed with the stance taken by Australia and New Zealand. Sir Terepai Maoate, Deputy Prime Minister of Cook Islands, said that setting deadlines and using harsh terms were not of any use in the situation.

Fiji has a history of serial coups ,which began in 1987 when the middle-ranking army officer Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka overthrew the newly elected Indian-dominated coalition government on the grounds that indigenous Fijians should have political primacy in the country. A few months later, Rabuka staged a mini-coup to tighten military control by abrogating the Constitution and declaring himself head of state. Elections were held under a new Constitution adopted in 1990, which enshrined a dominant position for ethnic Fijians in the countrys political life.

Indigenous Fijians and ethnic Indians form the two main communities in Fiji, Indians being third-generation descendants of the Indian workers brought to Fiji in the late 19th century and early 20th century to work on the sugarcane plantations. Tensions between the two communities over sharing of power have been a factor in the early coups. A more equitable Constitution was adopted in 1997, but in 2000, an armed gang led by George Speight took Mahendra Chaudhry, the countrys first ethnic Indian Prime Minister, and his Cabinet hostage.

Bainimarama, as military chief, conducted the negotiations for the release of the hostages and installed Qarase, a former banker, as interim Prime Minister. Qarase then went on to win two elections, the last one in 2006. However, the ill-will and bitterness over the 2000 coup and an attempted mutiny in the Fiji army lingered on, creating tensions between Qarase and Bainimarama. Eventually, the differences over granting amnesty to those involved in the 2000 coup and mutiny led to the military chief overthrowing the elected government in December 2006.

The first three coups in Fiji had been carried out by people claiming to protect the interests of the Fijian majority, and the Indian community became the target in the violence that followed the overthrow of the government in each case. But Bainimarama conducted a bloodless coup and asserted that he had acted to protect the rights and interests of all the people of Fiji.

The situation in Fiji is a complicated one and cannot be seen as an elected government versus a military commander. Bainimarama took over power in 2006 with the claim of cleaning the system of widespread corruption. There had been mixed reactions to the military takeover, which, unlike the earlier coups, was not accompanied by violence or looting. Indo-Fijians were relieved that the military commander was not targeting Indians and was speaking of equity between the different races. There were others who were thankful that the political instability due to the open bickering between the Prime Minister and the military chief had come to an end. The presence of the army led to a reduction in crime and cases of common assault.

The interim governments record has been a mixed one. The commodore has taken several controversial decisions; the army has used a heavy hand on a couple of occasions. The Fiji Independent Commission Against Corruption was set up but there have been few convictions for corruption. However, there is a growing impression that the level of corruption has declined. The interim regime has since turned its attention towards electoral reforms. One of the charges against the Qarase government was the use of highly inflated electoral rolls and electoral malpractices.

Bainimarama now has an agenda that he plans to implement to put in place an electoral system that provides for a one man, one vote system instead of the present race-based voting system. According to Bainimarama, the decision to abrogate the Constitution was taken after a survey showed that the majority of Fijis citizens wanted the electoral system to be reformed.

The Pacific island has a history of coups. Here, soldiers take up position outside Prime Minister Laisenia Qarases residence in the capital, Suva, on December 5, 2006, after the military chief said the army had taken over the country.-TIM WIMBORNE/REUTERS

In an interview to Radio New Zealand, he said that 64 per cent of the people in Fiji wanted a change from the old system of voting based on race. He said that the Emergency Regulations were imposed so that electoral reforms could be implemented.

The military regime had set up a National Council for Building a Better Fiji to prepare a Peoples Charter for Change, Progress and Peace, which was released in August 2008. The PPDF had been under way to discuss the charter. Political consultations had begun with the different political parties, though the larger political parties such as Qarases Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL) and the Indian-dominated National Federation Party (NFP) had refused to attend the talks because of the preconditions set by the interim government.

According to the charter, Fijis electoral system is racially discriminatory and undemocratic. The current communal system of representation entrenches inequalities; by not providing one value for one vote, it has contributed to the coup culture and the consequent ethnic-based politics that has impeded national development, it says. The charter proposes to establish a system of voting so that all the interests and wishes of the people of Fiji can be represented in the Parliament through an Open List Proportional Representation (PR) Electoral and Voting System. It also plans to incorporate specific anti-discrimination measures into Fijis electoral laws to ensure no person is discriminated against by political parties on the grounds of race, religion, gender or circumstance.

Under the abrogated 1997 Constitution, the 71-member House of Representatives had 46 communal seats and 25 open seats. Out of the 46 communal seats, 24 seats were for indigenous Fijians, 19 seats for ethnic Indians and three seats for the other races, each elected on a communal roll comprising their own ethnic group. According to Bainimarama, this race-based voting has perpetuated an unequal polity.

The military is now back in power again after a days gap, more deeply entrenched this time, with greater restrictions on the peoples liberties and rights. The abrogation of the Constitution has removed one obstacle that the military regime could have faced in its plans to reform the electoral system. It has put off the elections by more than six years. Parliamentary elections will only be held after September 2014, the new regime has said.

The 2006 coup led to a sharp economic downturn in Fiji, affecting investor confidence. Tourism and the garment export industry, both major foreign exchange earners, were hit hard by the economic sanctions imposed by Australia and New Zealand, leading to major job losses. Hotels and resorts, which had been running at less than 40 per cent capacity and had begun to pick up business in the past year, are likely to be hit again. In recent months, the global recession has hit Fiji hard, with exports declining and prices rising. Growth figures for 2009 were recently revised from 2.4 per cent to 0.3 per cent, according to government estimates. The government issued instructions in March to all government departments to cut down their operational expenses by 50 per cent.

Each coup has sent Fijis economy into a recession; and disruption in tourist arrivals. There has been a substantial increase in poverty in these unstable times. The most important task is to rebuild the economy and work on dealing with the rising levels of poverty and deprivation in the country. It is the poor who are the most affected by the continuing instability and the economic downturn.

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