Positive steps

Print edition : June 15, 2012

The military regime makes steady progress towards restoring constitutional order in the country.

FIJI has taken a significant step towards democratic governance. Its military regime has appointed a commission to draft a new Constitution, the country's fourth since its independence in 1970.

The New Year began with Prime Minister Commodore Frank Bainimarama making an announcement in an address to the nation that the public emergency regulations would be lifted within a week to facilitate the process of public consultations on a new Constitution. It came as a welcome relief to the people as the emergency regulations had banned all public gatherings and any form of protest and enforced stringent censorship on the media. They had been in place in Fiji since April 2009 after the Bainimarama government took over power in a military coup in 2006, ousting Laisenia Qarase.

Shortly after he took over as Interim Prime Minister, Bainimarama promised to hold elections by March 2009. But he went back on his word, saying more time was needed to root out corruption and reshape the country's political system, especially its race-based electoral system. In 2009, he tightened his hold on the country as he abrogated the Constitution and sacked the higher judiciary after the Fiji Court of Appeal gave a judgment declaring his government illegal. Bainimarama's critics accused him of detaining opponents without due process of law and suppressing individual freedoms and the freedom of speech through the imposition of the emergency regulations. The island nation in the South Pacific has a history of political instability and military takeovers that have strained the relations between the two major ethnic groups in the country indigenous Fijians and Fiji Indians, who are descendants of workers taken from India to work on sugarcane plantations in the 19th and 20th centuries. Fiji went through a decade and a half of ethnic turmoil after an army coup overthrew the first Indian-dominated government in 1987. Bainimarama's coup in 2006 was the result of differences with the elected Prime Minister and did not lead to an increase in ethnic tensions.

Several governments in the region have welcomed the lifting of the emergency regulations. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the development as a positive step in the direction of restoration of constitutional order. Fiji's neighbours Australia and New Zealand adopted a more cautious stance while calling for measurable progress on human rights and development of democracy. Australia and New Zealand, Fiji's main trading partners, had reacted strongly to the military takeover in 2006 by imposing stringent economic sanctions and banning any contact with the Bainimarama regime. The Commonwealth suspended Fiji from its councils as did the main regional body, the Pacific Islands Forum. Fiji's neighbours have been insisting on a change in policy in order to engage with Fiji in recent years. While Australia maintained its rigid stance, New Zealand diluted its sanctions over time and made some moves towards engaging with the Fiji government.

A ministerial contact group of the Pacific Islands Forum that visited Fiji in early May returned with a positive view of the developments there. The group consisted of New Zealand Minister for Foreign Affairs Murray McCullay, Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Bob Carr, Papua New Guinea Minister for Foreign Affairs Ano Pala, Minister of Justice of Samoa Fiame Naomi Mata'afa, Tuvalu Minister for Foreign Affairs Apisai Ielemia, and Vanuatu Minister of Foreign Affairs Alfred Carlot.

Bainimarama was in New Delhi in late April to attend the 41st meeting of the International Sugar Organisation (ISO), an intergovernmental body of sugar producers. He is the current vice-chairperson of the ISO.

While in Delhi, Bainimarama called on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and held discussions with other Ministers and officials. The Fijian leader explained to Manmohan Singh that the state of emergency had been lifted in Fiji and that he was working towards adopting a new Constitution and holding elections in 2014. Manmohan Singh spoke of strengthening bilateral cooperation and trade between the two countries. Later, Bainimarama, accompanied by Abdul Khan, the executive chairman of the Fiji Sugar Corporation (FSC), met the executives of the Export-Import Bank of India. This was to discuss details of its loan to the FSC for the upgrading of sugar mills in Fiji.

Announcing the setting up of the Constitution Commission, Bainimarama had said that the draft Constitution must be in accordance with the principles of the People's Charter for Change that had been adopted earlier. He went on to list some non-negotiable elements of the proposed Constitution equality for all, a secular state, an independent judiciary, one-person-one-vote system, the elimination of ethnic voting, proportional representation, and a minimum voting age of 18 years.

Bainimarama said that the Constitution must establish a government that is founded on an electoral system that guarantees equal suffrage, a truly democratic system based on the principle of one person, one vote, one value. We will not have a system that will classify Fijians based on ethnicity. Our young men and women, those 18 years old, must have the right to vote. It should also incorporate specific anti-discrimination measures into Fiji's laws to ensure that no person is discriminated against by political parties or others on the grounds of race, religion or gender, he said.

The five-member Constitution Commission is headed by a Kenyan-born person of Indian origin, Professor Yash Ghai, a scholar who has been involved in constitutional reforms in about 15 countries. He is well known for his impartiality; he was the head of the Kenyan Constitution Review Commission when he resigned in 2004 over governmental delays. He has also served as the U.N. Secretary-General's Special Representative to Cambodia. The commission has as its member Prof. Christina Murray of South Africa, who is a professor of constitutional and human rights law at the University of Cape Town. She helped draft the South African and Kenyan Constitutions. The three members in the commission from Fiji are Dr Taufa Vakatale, who was Education Minister in the 1990s; Satendra Nandan, author, poet and academic and a former Minister; and Penelope Moore, a human rights and gender activist who has been involved in the women's movement in Fiji. Three of the members are women.

FIJI'S PRIME MINISTER Frank Bainimarama (right) with Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee at the inaugural ceremony of the 41st council session of the International Sugar Organisation in New Delhi on April 24.-SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

The government has tasked the commission with holding public consultations and drafting its recommendations, which are to be submitted to a Constituent Assembly within six months. The commission is to take three months to accept submissions from political parties, civil society organisations, religious groups and other concerned citizens. It will evaluate the submissions and make its report for the consideration of the Constituent Assembly. It is expected to present its draft Constitution to the Constituent Assembly, which will meet in January next year. The composition of the Constituent Assembly has not yet been announced, but it is likely to be a representative body.

The four coups in Fiji have exacerbated race relations and political tensions in the island nation. The violent overthrow of the government in 2000 by George Speight, a part-Fijian businessman, had its repercussions six years later when Bainimarama ousted the elected government of Laisenia Qarase. As the Fiji military chief, Bainimarama had been instrumental in getting Mahendra Chaudhry and his cabinet colleagues released from captivity and installing an interim government headed by Qarase. Subsequent elections brought in an elected government headed by Qarase. Bainimarama fell out with Qarase over granting amnesty to those behind an attempted mutiny and the 2000 coup. In 2006, he overthrew Qarase's government in a bloodless coup.

The coups in 1987 and 2000 were carried out by persons claiming to protect the interests of indigenous Fijians and ensure their political supremacy. Both coups resulted in violence and rioting that targeted the Indian population. In 2006, the military commander asserted that he had acted to protect the rights and interests of all people of Fiji. He vowed to cleanse the system of corruption and ensure equity among ethnic groups.

Fiji's multiracial population consists of indigenous Fijians (56 per cent), people of Indian origin (37 per cent) and Europeans and other Pacific Islanders. Indians had outnumbered ethnic Fijians at the time of independence in 1970, and as a measure to maintain ethnic harmony in Fiji, the main political parties agreed to the 1970 Constitution, which provided for an equal number of indigenous Fijians and ethnic Indian members in the House of Representatives. Voting was held on ethnic lines, with Indians voting for Indians and ethnic Fijians voting for ethnic Fijian candidates in communal and open seats.

There has been a steady migration of Indians from Fiji since the 1987 coup; the migration accelerated with each spell of political instability. After the 1987 coup, a new Constitution was adopted in 1990, which continued the system of voting on ethnic or communal lines. It increased the communal seats and did away with the limited open seats. It also increased the number of indigenous Fijian seats in Parliament.

Under the recently 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 elected by indigenous Fijian voters. Ethnic Indians voted for Indians in 19 constituencies. Three seats were reserved for the other races. Only the 25 open constituencies had mixed voting. According to Bainimarama, this race-based voting had perpetuated an unequal polity and contributed to the coup culture, by not providing one value for one vote.

Among the questions that the Constitution Commission will need to take up is the institution of the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC), which was abolished by the Bainimarama government. Ethnic Fijian society is a tribal one where clan chiefs hold considerable influence. The military commander has had a fraught relationship with the GCC; he suspended it when it refused to ratify his choice of Vice-President. Fiji's Constitution gave the GCC a strong role in the country's politics, with the power to nominate the President, the Vice-President and the members of the Senate.

In a sudden decision in March this year, Bainimarama announced in a national broadcast the abolition of the GCC. Calling it a product of the colonial past, he said that it had perpetuated elitism and created divisive politics. It had got highly politicised, with its members having political affiliations and getting involved in political matters, he said. He also decreed that the term Fijian should apply to all people of Fiji, including ethnic Indians and indigenous Fijians, who would be known as i-Taukei.

Various commentators have suggested that the GCC has a place in the lives of ethnic Fijians and should be revived sans the power to appoint the President, the Vice-President and the members of the Senate. The Constitution Commission has a tough task ahead and will need to incorporate the widest range of views to find acceptance for the new Constitution among the people.

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