Towards elections in Fiji

Published : Aug 18, 2001 00:00 IST

As Fiji gets set to go to the polls on August 25, a look at the line-up and the issues.

SOME 15 months after an armed gang ousted the government of Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry in the South Pacific island-nation of Fiji, the country is holding elections to choose a new government. On May 19, 2000, a group of armed men barged into the Parliament building in the capital Suva and took Mahendra Chaudhry and his entire Council of Ministers hostage. Their demand was the ouster of a government headed by a person of Indian descent and their slogan was Fiji for the Fijians. However, a court order later held the dismissal to be illegal and paved the way for fresh elections to take place on August 25, 2001.

With 23 political parties in the fray, it will be difficult for any single party to get a majority in the House of Representatives. It is a coalition that would form the new government, for the Constitution provides that the two major ethnic groups, the Fijians and the Indians, would need each other's support to form a government.

It was the second time that a government was overthrown in Fiji. In 1987, the government was ousted through a military coup led by the third ranking officer of Fiji's Army, Lt. Col. Sitiveni Rabuka. Rabuka drew his support within the Army and aimed to restore the defeated Alliance Party headed by Ratu Mara that represented the traditional Fijian hierarchy. He claimed to stand for Fijian values and tradition. The armed group led by George Speight, a failed businessman, included some members of an elite commando group, the Counter Revolutionary Warfare group, but they did not have the backing of the armed forces. Although the Speight gang spoke of Fijian rights, the mercenary action brought out strong strains of provincialism and tribal factionalism that had remained latent in Fijian society.

The armed gangsters had claimed that Mahendra Chaudhry was not protecting the rights of the ethnic Fijians, but once the hostages were released the Fijian chiefs of the western provinces come out in opposition to them. The western province is the heartland of the sugarcane growing area which is the mainstay of Fijis economy. It is also the region where the main tourist resorts are located. As both races began feeling the effect of the prolonged political crisis, Fiji seemed to be sliding into a state of civil strife after the hostages were released. While Mahendra Chaudhry was held captive, the crisis was labelled an Indian versus Fijian problem. After his release, a new interim Cabinet was to be appointed under the agreement reached with the hostage takers. By that time the tussle within the Fijian ranks came out into the open, with different tribal groups suggesting different candidates for the Cabinet. The Fijian community has traditionally remained a cohesive group, where their chiefs govern the tribes. But inter-tribal differences began to crop up, as anyone with a grievance began looking for redress. The law and order situation deteriorated as ethnic Fijians took over airports, hotel resorts and even police stations demanding a better return for the land they had leased for these facilities. Speight and his close advisers were finally arrested and an Interim Government was appointed under Laisenia Qarase, a former banker. Qarase's Cabinet included several Ministers who had openly supported Speight's actions.

Several months later a Fiji High Court Judge ruled on a writ petition that the dismissal of the Chaudhry government was illegal. A Court of Appeal later pronounced that the abrogation of the Constitution was illegal, and held that Parliament was not dissolved but merely prorogued on May 28, 2000. The Appeal Court went into several claims that had been made by various parties. The Interim Government had stated that the 1997 Constitution had failed to protect the rights of the indigenous Fijians and that the new, preferential system of voting had distorted the people's choice in the previous elections (in 1999). In its affidavit the interim administration had listed these two reasons for the indigenous Fijians feeling that their rights had been eroded under the new Constitution. The court found that there was no erosion of the special rights of the Fijians. It said that given the provisions under the 1997 Constitution, any attempt to change the law in relation to land rights of the Fijians and other indigenous rights by stealth was impossible since any changes required ratification by the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC), the supreme body of Fijian tribal chiefs.

The court analysed the voting system introduced for the last elections in 1999 and concluded that even with a "first-past-the-post" system, the same government would have come to power. It felt that the claims that indigenous Fijians did not understand the electoral system were largely unsubstantiated. The Interim Government had the burden of proving to the court that it was in firm control and that the people had truly acquiesced to it. The court held that the government did not produce any direct evidence of acquiescence and stated that "passive acceptance was not persuasive evidence of acquiescence". The Interim Government had suppressed public demonstrations of dissent and there were numerous affidavits filed by individuals and organisations expressing disapproval of the interim regime. The Court of Appeal agreed with the High Court that the constitutional doctrine of necessity did not validate the Interim Government.

Under the Court of Appeal order, Mahendra Chaudhry's government was to be restored. But Chaudhry was then facing a challenge to his leadership within his party, from his deputy Dr. Tupeni Baba. He recommended to the President that Parliament be dissolved and fresh elections be held. Elections were then scheduled for August 25 and the Qarase government remained in charge. Since that time, Dr. Tupeni Baba and several influential Fiji Labour Party (FLP) members (both Indians and Fijians) left the party to form the New Labour Unity Party (NLUP).

The election scene has turned combative as the 23 political parties battle it out among themselves. The hardline Fijian parties have been accusing one another of not looking after the interests of the indigenous community. The two Labour factions are at loggerheads. Dr. Baba claimed that the re-election of Mahendra Chaudhry would lead to another coup as the country was not ready for an Indian as Prime Minister. The Daily Post in an editorial then strongly condemned Tupeni Baba for using what it called the racial card. It said: "Baba's remarks are totally irrelevant, uncalled for, shallow and perhaps unfortunate. For someone campaigning to be Prime Minister such a prediction has not given voters the confidence they are looking for. Instead, such statements create doubt, fear and apprehension in the minds of voters and perhaps in his ability as a leader. No doubt, Baba was targeting a certain group of voters."

Interim Prime Minister Qarase, a political novice, floated a new political party called Sogosogo Duavata ni Lewenivanu (SDL). All other political parties in the country have called for Qarase's resignation so that a neutral government could conduct the elections. Many of them have also charged Qarase with making fresh appointments to statutory boards and key positions just before the elections. Qarase had constituted a Constitutional Review Commission that was disbanded by the President on the direction of the High Court. However, Qarase has been declaring in his campaign speeches that he would reconstitute the Commission to ensure that political power remains with the Fijians if he were elected. Qarase has said that the Constitution should be changed to ensure the ethnic Fijian's political supremacy in the country.

Deep and bitter tribal divisions within the Fijian community have come out in the open, shattering the myth of cultural unity among the Fijians. Class and regional considerations have begun to factor in Fijian political considerations. The highly individualistic style of the Indian leaders does not allow a show of unity among the community. The main political parties consist of the SVT party (Soqosoqo no Vakavulewa ni Taukei) that was formed in 1990 after the coup as the party of the ethnic Fijians with the blessings of the Fijian chiefs. But factional fights within the party deprived it of much of its Fijian support, though it remained the single largest party in Parliament under Rabu-ka's leadership.

The Fijian Association Party had broken out of the SVT in the 1990s led by the anti-Rabuka faction, mainly members of Ratu Mara's Alliance Party. It is headed by Adi Kuini Speed, the wife of Dr. Timoci Bavadra who headed the short-lived government that was overthrown by Rabuka in 1987. The VLV party (Veitokani Ni Lewenivanua Vakaristo) was formed on the eve of elections, by Fijians opposed to Rabuka in 1999. It is a party of moderate Fijians.

The National Federation Party, which was formed to take up the cause of the Indian cane farmers against the Colonial Sugar Refining Company in the mid-1960s, was in the forefront of Fiji's decolonisation movement. Leadership struggles remained a feature of the party and it lost its claim to be the main political party of the Indians in 1984 when the FLP was formed to oppose the economic policies of the Alliance Government. The SVT and the NFP, the two main political groups in Parliament, had sunk their differences in 1997 to work for the acceptance of the new Constitution. The decision to contest the 1999 election cost them dearly as the SVT had to tone down its pro-Fijian rhetoric and the NFP got affected by the Rabuka government's scandal-ridden record in office.

George Speight, currently imprisoned on Nukulau island, was allowed to file his nomination papers after obtaining approval from the Magistrate's Court. The Prosecution Office filed an appeal and the High Court rebuked the Magistrate's Court saying that it had no authority to allow terrorists charged with treason to file nomination papers. However, Speight's nomination still stands on the ground that he has not been convicted of his crime. Any candidate is debarred from standing for election if he or she is convicted for a crime that can attract a sentence of over two years. One of the daily newspapers, however, wrote with reference to the acceptance of Speight's nomination papers that it "was wrong in principle, morally corrupt and hypocritical in many ways. It goes against the grain of logic and should not have been entertained in the first place. Many people have not forgotten the terror, violence, fear and humiliation brought by the actions of the mercenaries. The sense of immediate fear and humiliation comes flooding back." He is the Conservative Alliance party's candidate.

In the 1999 elections, the FLP had won 37 of the 71 seats on its own. Mahendra Chaudhry formed the People's Coalition with 58 seats. But as in the case of all new and inexperienced governments, its teething problems took up a large part of the time, especially as the People's Coalition comprised of small parties with their own agendas. Under the Constitution adopted in 1997, any party with more than eight MPs has a place in the Cabinet. The Senate or Upper House is an appointed body. The House of Representatives has 71 members, of which 46 are reserved seats to be elected on communal basis: 23 by ethnic Fijians, 19 by Indians and three by general electors and one by the Council of Rotuma. The remaining 25 are open seats contested on a common roll. Under the preferential system of voting adopted in the 1999 elections, voters choose the political party's order of preference votes (above the line) or their own preference (below the line).

Preferences are negotiated well in advance and lodged with the Election Office. The preferential lists of the other parties show that the candidates of Chaudhry's FLP and Qarase's SDL will require the mandatory 50 per cent votes to win, for they stand low on the preferential list of the other parties. There is the likelihood that three major groups would emerge: the pro-Fijian group headed by interim Prime Minister Qarase, the Chaudhry group and the moderates led by Tupeni Baba. Fiji is expected to elect a coalition government. It is the kind of coalition that would emerge after the polling that will determine the country's future direction, both in economic and racial terms.

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