Complex equation

Print edition : June 16, 2006

AISENIA QARASE, Prime Minister and SDL leader. - BRUCE SOUTHWICK/AFP

A new experiment in sharing power has brought together the main political parties in Fiji, the SDL and the FLP, in a multi-party Cabinet.

FIJI has begun a new experiment in governance by bringing together two rival political parties in a power-sharing arrangement through a multi-party Cabinet. The recent elections in Fiji brought back Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase's Soqsoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL) party to power for a second term. The new Cabinet, formed in the third week of May, included nine Ministers belonging to the Fiji Labour Party (FLP), the main opponent of the ruling SDL in the elections.

According to Fiji's Constitution adopted in 1997, any political party that wins 10 per cent of the seats in the House of Representatives has the right to be represented in the Cabinet in proportion to its strength in the House. This provision is aimed at giving representation to all sections of the House of Representatives by including the larger political parties in the government. Shortly after being appointed Prime Minister for a second term, Qarase invited former Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry to join his Cabinet. After initial hiccups over the choice of Ministers and portfolios, the FLP accepted the invitation, and nine of its members became Cabinet Ministers while Chaudhry himself opted to stay out. The nine Cabinet portfolios allotted to the FLP include Commerce and Industry, Health, Agriculture, Environment, Labour and Industrial Relations, Curative Health Service, Energy and Mineral Resources, Primary and Preventative Health Services, Local Government and Urban Development, Employment Opportunities and Productivity.

Fiji's politics has had a stormy history with two coups that overthrew governments led by the FLP in 1987 and 2000. The strains of the 2000 coup in which Mahendra Chaudhry's government was ousted still remain. The pre-election period was buffeted by speculations of political instability in the country in case there was no clear winner.

The combined Cabinet is a new experiment for Fiji, which is accustomed to the traditional parliamentary style of governance with the parties in the Opposition in direct confrontation with the ruling benches. Fiji's politics has devolved into a two-party system, which has unfortunately suffered racial polarisation in the last two elections. The traditional indigenous Fijian community does not air its internal differences in the open. The more conservative and traditional Fijians have often found the vigorous parliamentary debate with its normal acerbic comments and tart rejoinders as bordering on the offensive. The two-party system pits the two against each other, giving the impression that they are in a state of constant confrontation. Without the leavening effect of smaller political parties, it leaves little chance of accommodation between the ruling and Opposition benches, even where it is possible.

The flip side of the national Cabinet system is that it makes for a convoluted arrangement of some members of an Opposition party being part of the government while the others perform the role of the traditional Opposition. The arrangement is likely to remain a fragile one. Despite the best of intentions, there will come occasions when the policies and ideologies of the two parties will clash and both will have to find ways to resolve their differences.

There is also the question of whether their party colleagues being part of the multi-party Cabinet would make the rest of the FLP members a part of the government benches. But Chaudhry has clarified that he and the rest of the FLP's Members of Parliament will remain in the Opposition. The FLP leader had asked for Cabinet positions for his alliance partner, the United People's Party (UPP), but UPP chief Mick Beddoes opted to remain in the Opposition.

Members of both the SDL and the FLP have voiced some apprehensions on how the multi-party Cabinet will work. Even Qarase had expressed his surprise at Chaudhry accepting his invitation to join the Cabinet, adding that it could create some difficult situations for the FLP leader because of the differences in the manifestos of the two parties. After the last elections in 2001, Qarase made it clear that he did not like the constitutional provision of a multi-party Cabinet, even after the courts held that the Prime Minister was obliged to offer Cabinet positions to eligible political parties. After two years of wrangling, Chaudhry decided to sit in the Opposition.

This time round popular opinion in the country was strongly in favour of the FLP joining the government and the two major parties working together. There were differences within the FLP over joining the government but, as the party's deputy leader Poseci Bune said, the members finally agreed to see to the implementation of the multi-party Cabinet system this time. Despite individual scepticism, both leaders made the effort to put in place a multi-party Cabinet within 10 days of the election results being announced. The immediate task before the political leadership now is to provide political stability, which would engender tourism and investor confidence in the country. During the week-long polling process, Canberra had issued a travel advisory asking Australians to take care while travelling in Fiji.

The formation of the new government has helped to cool down the fears and rumours that vitiated the atmosphere in the months before the elections. In its first meeting, the multi-party Cabinet set up nine sub-committees to look into issues where there is divergence of opinion, particularly the Reconciliation, Tolerance and Unity (RTU) Bill and agricultural land leases.

MAHENDRA CHAUDHRY, FLP leader-ROB GRIFFTH/AP

The Prime Minister gave the assurance that substantial changes would be made in the controversial Bill, which had spoiled the political atmosphere for the past two years - an assurance that should take the heat out of the military commander's anger over the Bill.

There has been a long-drawn-out war of words between the military commander, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, and the Prime Minister over the RTU Bill as it includes provisions for grant of amnesty to persons involved in the May 2000 coup. The 56-day-long hostage crisis in the coup ended in a deal negotiated by the Fiji military under which Mahendra Chaudhry and his Cabinet were released, Parliament was dissolved and Qarase installed as the interim Prime Minister. The coup was followed by a mutiny in November 2000 during which members of the military's disbanded Counter Revolutionary Warfare Unit allegedly tried to assassinate the military chief. Some members of the unit were implicated in the coup. The Fiji military has on several occasions expressed concern over the delays and government interventions in the conviction of those involved in the coup.

In December 2005, the military chief made a statement that the armed forces would not allow the RTU Bill to be passed. Bainimarama said the deaths of soldiers in 2000 had yet to be avenged and those dark days had yet to be erased because the government had continued to adopt racist policies and programmes to justify its existence to the indigenous community. Eight soldiers, including five rebels, had been killed in the mutiny. The military chief said that if the government continued with its racial policies, the military would not hesitate to move in and take over the running of the country. This sparked fears of another coup.

It was during the week-long voting process that former Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka appeared in court on charges of inciting a mutiny in the Fiji armed forces in 2000. Rabuka was the third ranking officer in the Fiji Army when he led a coup in 1987 to overthrow the Indian-dominated FLP government of Dr. Timoci Bavadra. Rabuka was elected Prime Minister in 1992 and remained in office until he lost the 1999 elections to a coalition led by Mahendra Chaudhry. In November 2000, he allegedly incited senior Army officers to oust the military chief.

During the election campaign in April, Bainimarama reacted sharply to senior SDL leaders telling voters that there would be instability if a non-Fijian was elected Prime Minister. Qarase said that he was merely stating the fact that whenever the FLP came to power instability in the country ensued. Bainimarama has played a significant role in his country's politics during the coup and its aftermath. He has often said that the armed forces were there to ensure stability in the country. While there was some sympathy for the military chief's viewpoint on the RTU Bill, he seems to have overstepped the bounds in his public wrangling with the SDL.

The political system in Fiji has sought to ensure representation to all ethnic groups in the country. About 38 per cent of Fiji's population of almost 900,000 are of Indian origin, most of them third or fourth generation descendants of Indian indentured workers who had been taken to Fiji to work in sugarcane plantations. At the time of Independence from Britain in 1970, the Indo-Fijian population was slightly larger than the indigenous Fijian population, and hardline indigenous Fijian politicians have often played on the fears of ethnic Fijians of being swamped by the economically dominant Indian community. This has led to the view among radical ethnic Fijians that political power should remain in their hands. Indigenous Fijians make up more than 54 per cent of the country's population.

The Indo-Fijian population has been declining over the years because of constant migration of Indo-Fijians to Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States, especially accelerated by the coups and the violence associated with them.

The decline in the Indo-Fijian population has made it clear that for an Indo-Fijian to become the leader of the country, he would require the support of a substantial section of other ethnic groups.

Under the Constitution, Fiji has a system with a fixed number of communal seats in order to give adequate representation to the main ethnic groups in the islands. In the 71-member House of Representatives, there are 46 communal seats in which members represent their own ethnic group, and 25 open seats that are open for contesting by all ethnic groups. The 46 communal seats are filled by 23 indigenous Fijians, 19 Indo-Fijians, one Rotuman Islander (a small island dependency of Fiji) and three General Electors, who belong to the Caucasian, Chinese and other Pacific Islanders communities.

As many as 338 candidates contested the 2006 general elections. The highest number of candidates belonged to the SDL, which had candidates for 48 communal and 32 open seats. The FLP had a total of 59 candidates, contesting 35 communal and 24 open seats. The National Alliance Party of Fiji fielded 50 candidates and the National Federation Party 45. The UPP had 10 candidates while the Party of National Unity contested three communal and six open seats. The United People's Party of General Electors had an alliance with the FLP. According to the Fiji Elections Office's figures, there are 475,000 registered voters, of whom indigenous Fijians form 54 per cent (274,132 voters), Indo-Fijians 37 per cent (187,831), General Electors (non-Fijian, Indian or Rotuman) 7 per cent (35,535) and Rotumans 2 per cent (10,153).

ELECTION GRAFFITI in a Fijian village.-TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP

The election results gave 36 seats to the SDL, 31 to the FLP, two to the UPP and two to independents. The SDL received 81 per cent of the indigenous Fijian vote and 45 per cent of the total votes polled. The FLP obtained 81 per cent of the Indo-Fijian vote and about 38 per cent of the total vote. The figures show a complete polarisation of Fiji's electorate along racial and ethnic lines in the bitterly fought elections that wiped out the moderate ethnic Fijian parties and smaller parties. However, though the cleavage between the two ethnic groups gets accentuated at election time, the majority of people in the country want to live in peace.

In these circumstances the constitution of a multi-party Cabinet helps to create conditions where some amount of adjustment and accommodation can take place between the two political parties.

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