Hesitant steps

Print edition : June 29, 2007

The interim government lifts the emergency regulations in force in an apparent attempt to normalise the situation.


Commodore Vorege Bainimarama, coup leader and Prime Minister.-RICK RYCROFT/AP

JUST about six months after the coup in December 2006, the interim government in Fiji lifted the Public Emergency Regulations that had been imposed on the country after the military takeover. The easing of the regulations has been widely welcomed. However, the curbs on the media will continue, as will the restrictions on public gatherings.

During its rule, the military-led interim government dismissed dozens of top civil servants, cut jobs in the name of downsizing the bureaucracy, reversed the hike in the value added tax, initiated some form of fiscal reform, and sidelined the influential Great Council of Chiefs and suspended its meetings after it refused to endorse the appointment of a new Vice-President.

Fiji's economy has been badly affected by the military takeover; exports have declined and inflation increased from 2.6 per cent in January this year to 3.6 per cent in March. The booming tourism industry had been hit hard with the prominent hotels showing an occupancy rate of just 30 to 35 per cent.

The slump in tourism has resulted in job losses in an industry that is the country's biggest foreign exchange earner. Earnings from tourism were F$ 860 million in 2005 when about 5.49 lakh tourists visited the islands.

Interim Prime Minister and military chief Commodore Vorege Bainimarama has announced the formation of a new body called "National Council for Building a Better Fiji" that would formulate a policy direction for the country. The council would be headed by the President and would include community leaders, representatives of civil society organisations, political leaders and the interim Prime Minister. Various organisations, institutions and leaders have been asked to make suggestions and submissions for a people's charter that would aim to rebuild Fiji into a "culturally vibrant and united, well-governed, truly democratic nation that seeks progress and prosperity through merit-based equality of opportunity and peace".

However, there is little to show in the matter of cleansing the corrupt system, one of the main priorities listed by Bainimarama. In a recent interview, Bainimarama explained that a huge body of evidence had been gathered and his administration was waiting to put in place an anti-corruption commission to take up the cases.

Of Fiji's immediate neighbours, New Zealand has welcomed the lifting of the emergency regulations while Australia has toned down its travel advisory for Fiji from `exercise high degree of caution' to `exercise caution'. Both countries continue to impose economic and diplomatic sanctions on the interim administration, demanding a "quick return to democracy".

Lifting of emergency regulations was part of an undertaking that the interim government had given to the European Union (EU) as a step towards normalising the situation. The European Council of Ministers is to meet shortly to review the situation in Fiji, and the Council is to take a final decision on whether the EU would release a $82-million grant. The grant is aimed at helping Fiji's sugar industry diversify in order to cushion the impact of the EU's phasing out of preferential sugar pricing for small country producers.

A farmer in his sugarcane field at the village of Sabeto, near the city of Nadi. India had extended a soft credit line of $5.4 million for the rehabilitation of Fiji's ailing sugar industry.-DAVID GRAY/REUTERS

Unlike Australia, New Zealand and the United States, which imposed economic, political and military sanctions against Fiji, the EU has chosen to remain engaged with the administration in order to be in a position to encourage a return to democracy. The EU, which purchases Fijian sugar at preferential terms, is the country's biggest aid donor and can help Fiji edge towards normalcy. The EU has said that it considers it essential that the rule of law is restored in Fiji and the political rights of all its citizens respected equally and on the basis of Fiji's Constitution. The EU encourages Fiji to examine the roots of the "coup culture" and look for means to eradicate it. While lifting emergency regulations was the first step, the main condition, according to the EU, is early and credible general elections to be held not later than March 1, 2009.

Repeated coups indicate a culture that accepts or condones such takeovers and the EU statement indicates that it would like the leadership in Fiji to find out the reasons for the coup culture and ways to remove them. Political analysts in Fiji believe that the country is facing the lingering effects of the first coup in 1987, which helped create the impression that a violent overthrow of an elected government could be condoned if it espoused populist policies. That coup shook the entire political, social, economic and racial edifice of Fiji, and its effects are still being felt in Fiji's society. The coup was led by Lieutenant Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka, who went on to become Prime Minister in 1992. He led the country until he lost the 1999 elections to Indian-origin Fijian Mahendra Chaudhry.

The 1987 coup was a military overthrow of a democratically elected government, but it came to be seen as one that ensured the rights of the indigenous people. It gave legitimacy to the view that indigenous rights were supreme and overrode other aspects of democratic functioning.

The immunity granted to Col. Rabuka meant that others who followed in his footsteps could expect similar treatment. It resulted in a lack of respect for the rule of law.

The coup in 2000 that overthrew Mahendra Chaudhry was stayed by a group of nationalist Fijians who raised the same slogan of protecting the rights of the indigenous people. The 2006 coup, which displaced Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, was the result of a political conflict between two ethnic Fijian leaders. It was the culmination of a long-drawn-out public spat between Bainimarama and Qarase over issues of corruption, government functioning, and two potentially divisive pieces of legislation.

In the wake of sanctions by Australia, New Zealand and the US, the interim government has been reaching out to countries such as China and India. During a recent visit to New Delhi, Interim Finance Minister Mahendra Chaudhry called on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and had meetings with several other Ministers. A former Prime Minister, Chaudhry explained to the Indian leaders that the interim government has set itself a three-year time frame for taking the country back to democratic rule - it planned to hold elections by June 2010, he said.

Talking to journalists after his meetings, Chaudhry said that the Indian leaders had expressed the willingness to provide assistance to Fiji and asked for an early return to parliamentary democracy. India has pledged to continue its assistance to Fiji in areas such as the sugar industry, health care services, tourism, and Information Technology. The Indian government had extended a soft credit line of $5.4 million for the rehabilitation of Fiji's ailing sugar industry and was now considering proposals for assistance in the infrastructure and rural development sectors, Chaudhry said.

While there was pressure from the international community on the government to hold elections within 18 to 24 months, there were lengthy electoral procedures that had to be completed before fair elections could be held, the Minister said. "The last election was rigged," Chaudhry said. He added that his party, the Fiji Labour Party, had complained of irregularities in the 2001 as well as the 2006 general elections. After the 2001 elections, the Labour Party wrote to the Supervisor of Elections regarding irregularities in the election but no action was taken. Investigations into the complaint was initiated three years later by a new Police Commissioner, but they had to be dropped as the Election Office said that election records were no longer available, Chaudhry said.

According to Chaudhry, a recent audit of Fiji's Election Office ordered by the interim government had shown serious discrepancies and abuses in the 2006 elections. It showed that about 1.2 million extra ballot papers had been printed. Over 60,000 unused ballot papers were missing and unaccounted for, and no accounts were maintained of the number of votes cast, invalid votes and unused ballot papers for each constituency. Many voters had complained on polling day that their names were missing from the voters' list though they held valid voter registration slips, he said.

"Fiji does not have a history of rigged elections, the first rigged election was in 2001," said Chaudhry, adding that even during Col. Rabuka's time elections were not rigged. The rigging began from the time of voter registration, when a large number of voters, mainly ethnic Indian voters, were placed in the wrong constituencies. "There are four-five urban constituencies which are marginal constituencies but they decide the election results; the rigging took place in these constituencies," he said.

Mahendra Chaudhry, Interim Finance Minister.-RAJEEV BHATT

According to Chaudhry, a population census has to be carried out. The census that was due in 2006 was put off. The last census was conducted in 1996 and there has been a substantial population shift from rural to urban areas since then. The Boundaries Commission was not able to make any changes in constituency boundaries in 2006 as there was no reliable data on population shift. The census will begin in July and after the compilation of data, the Commission will meet to draw provisional constituency boundaries. Registration of voters and compilation of electoral rolls will take place thereafter. This is a time-consuming process, according to Chaudhry.

Asked how he made the decision to join the interim government, he said: "Unlike the earlier coups, this coup was not to grab power, it was about governance issues. I had been articulating the view that the country was heading for economic disaster. After the interim government was formed, I was asked to come in to manage the country's finances. I did not offer to join the government on my own."

According to the Interim Finance Minister, who has taken some hard financial decisions in the recent national budget, the national debt had more than doubled in the six years of the previous government and the budget deficit was ballooning. In 2000, Fiji's external reserves were sufficient to cover the import bill for eight months, but in December 2006 it had come down and was enough to meet barely two months' imports. About 85 per cent of the budget went towards the cost of administration and servicing external debt, and corruption was endemic, he said. The economy was on the brink of collapse mainly because of negligence in the handling of the economy, according to him.

The international community particularly - Australia, New Zealand and the Commonwealth Secretariat - was quick to condemn the overthrow of the Qarase government. Chaudhry said: "It was the natural reaction of democratic societies but they failed to realise that this coup was not carried out by surprise. The takeover was imminent, the Army was warning for six months that unless the government changed the manner of governance, stemmed corruption, amended racial policies, amended proposed legislation, it would take over."

"Coups have been traumatic events for me, my family and the political party I represent. I have come to view them as part of the political process. The country is going through another difficult stage in its political evolution. I hope at the end of this takeover, when we return to democracy, we would have completely eradicated the culture of coups from Fiji," he added.

Although the easing of the stringent regulations has provided a modicum of relief to the people, there will be little improvement in the hard economic conditions and rising unemployment until the government takes further steps towards democracy and ensuring that the economic sanctions are lifted.

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