An extremist victory

Print edition : September 15, 2001

The defeat of the moderate forces in the August general elections in Fiji portends an unhealthy domination of extremist ethnic elements in the Fijian establishment.

"The Indians in Fiji, brought to these shores as labourers, did not come to conquer or colonise. We, their descendants, do not seek to usurp your ancient rights and responsibilities. We never have. We have no wish, no desire, to separate ourselves from you. Fiji is our home. Fiji is our only home. We have no other. We want no other... you are the chiefs of all the people of Fiji... we seek not to threaten your security, but to protect it. We seek not domination; indeed, we cannot dominate: we are not the majority ethnic group in this multiracial nation - you are. What we seek is a partnership..."

- Jai Ram Reddy, then leader of the National Federation Party and the first-ever Indo-Fijian to address Fiji's Great Council of Chiefs before the consensus Constitution of 1997 was adopted.

THE elections are over in Fiji, and soon a government composed almost entirely of ethnic Fijians will assume power in Suva, making a mockery of the 1997 Constitution, which envisaged a power-sharing arrangement between ethnic Fijians and Indians.

In all likelihood, Laisenia Qarase, the man who was "interim" and is currently "caretaker" Prime Minister will take over as the elected head of government, since his Soqosoqo Duavata Ni Lewenivanua (SDL) party has won 31 of the 70 seats in the 71-member House of Representatives.

Deposed Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry's Fiji Labour Party (FLP) came a close second, winning 27 seats - down 10 seats from its score in the May 1999 elections, the first polls held under the 1997 Constitution. Despite "compulsory" voting, the turn-out this time was officially reported to be 77.86, as opposed to the 90 per cent polling in 1999.

Chaudhry has made allegations of "vote-rigging" in at least five seats and has threatened to go to court. As things stand, his complaint is effectively that of a "loser", but his charge relating to the extremely high number of invalid votes is a valid one.

The Prime Minister-to-be, Laisenia Qarase.-TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP

But the fact remains that Chaudhry's party stood isolated in Fiji's preferential vote system. The other "Indian-dominated" group, the National Federation Party, had placed Labour at the bottom of its list of preferences, indicating that while the FLP may have captured the imagination of ethnic Indian voters, other parties did not want to have anything to do with it.

Chaudhry's direct style of governance, seen by some as arrogance, ensured that his return to power would be blocked. Some FLP leaders told Frontline that even if Labour attained an absolute majority, the call to form a government could have gone to an ethnic Fijian majority grouping. In a country where the military, the police and the civilian bureaucracy is tightly controlled and dominated by ethnic Fijians, the Chaudhry government was seen as a threat to this "domination".

THE meteoric rise of the SDL Party, which was formed only a few months ago, was hardly surprising since the Fijian establishment and the Methodist Church had thrown their weight behind it. A confluence of factors, including a call to avoid a splintering of the ethnic Fijian vote, led to the SDL emerging as the single largest party and the Conservative Alliance (Matanitu Vanua) of George Speight, the leader of last year's coup, taking six seats.

Speight won his own election while remaining in jail - an indication that extremist tendencies are on the rise among ethnic Fijians. Similarly, Indian voters voted in large numbers for the FLP, an indication of their belief that the NFP's moderate approach would not work.

Laisenia Qarase, a former banker and civil servant, was appointed interim Prime Minister at the instance of the military last year. He is a creature of the Fijian establishment; the SDL's programme and his own statements after the elections show that a Fijian-majoritarian approach will continue.

Qarase is for amendments to the 1997 Constitution, which was worked out by moderate Indian and Fijian elements and had the stamp of approval of the Great Council of Chiefs. Today, that document, which is strongly backed by the international and ethnic Indian community, is in tatters.

The present round of general elections has led to a further polarisation of ethnic Fijian and Indian voters. Although the 1997 Constitution, with its mix of Fijian communal, Indian communal and "open" seats, along with Cabinet seats for any party which won 10 per cent of the seats, was supposed to encourage ethnic cooperation, the opposite seems to have happened. In March this year, this correspondent, on a visit to Fiji, was told that Chaudhry was the "wrong Prime Minister for the right Constitution". Ironically, Qarase will also take a "wrong" direction, as far as Indo-Fijians are concerned.

Qarase, while addressing a press conference on September 6, made it clear that he had no interest in working with the Labour Party. Instead, he said Chaudhry's party would be invited to participate in the government only as a "constitutional obligation" and that it should therefore not expect important jobs in the new Cabinet.

The SDL is holding talks with Speight's Conservative Alliance and the smaller parties in a bid to get the numbers to form a government. An obvious demand from Speight and his co-conspirators, who took Chaudhry and his colleagues in government hostage in May 2000, is that an amnesty be part of the deal.

Former Prime Minister Mahendra Pal Chaudhry.-TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP

While Qarase has stated that Speight's case was subject to a legal process, there is a possibility that a "deal" will be worked out. The Fijian establishment is divided on this issue, and the Speight case could create problems for the new government in the days ahead. For now, the "ultra-extremists" would be content with top Cabinet posts. But they will continue to pressure the new government on the amnesty issue.

If Speight goes scot-free, then the confidence of those ethnic Fijians who believe in the rule of law and of the ethnic Indians, already unhappy at being unequal citizens, will hit a new low.

Writing in The Fiji Sun, Prof. Vijay Naidu, who teaches at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, said: "Far from bringing the country together, this general election... has both exposed and re-inforced the deep divisions in Fijian society." He argued that both the SDL and the Conservative Alliance had an "influential ally" in the Methodist Church. Speight's party, he said, had done well in the "rebel areas" from where the plotters and participants in the coup hailed. "It is a sad reflection on a segment of Fiji's population that his (Speight's) acts of political extremism, which have caused incalculable losses to the nation and its people, and his violation of democracy can be rewarded by popular support at the polls," he added.

In an article written before the elections, Teresita Teaiwa, Lecturer in Pacific Studies at New Zealand's University of Wellington, noted that there was enthusiasm at the time of the May 1999 polls.

"This year, however, the impulse towards elections is jaded. The citizens of Fiji are going to the polls not to choose leaders, but to go through the motions, to legitimise vested interests, to appease international aid donors, to assuage their own feelings of guilt for not being able to refuse and resist the everyday seductions of corruption, pragmatism, complacency, denial and disempowerment," she wrote. "Perhaps the more relevant question is not whether the August elections will deliver democracy, but whether the conditions that produced the coups of May 19, 2000 and May 14, 1987 have been removed."

Fijian and Indian residents waiting to vote in Suva on September 1.-ROB GRIFFITH/AP

Teaiwa added: "While debates are raging about national unity, indigenous unity, constitutionality, and electoral systems - the most basic of questions remain unanswered. Have all unlicensed arms been removed from the public? Has the professionalism of the judiciary and police forces been ensured? Is the judiciary competent and ethical? Do voters understand their rights? How can they trust a system that is very much adrift, constantly compromising itself?"

Undoubtedly, Fiji and Fijians need to understand all these questions. In one sense, an ethnic Fijian government may "restore" some of the lost sense of "respect" of ethnic Fijians. The fact that Chaudhry is not likely to be the next Prime Minister is another victory for them.

But what about the long-term prospects of Fiji? If ethnic Fijians own the land, the Indo-Fijians are active in trade and commerce, and in providing education services. Is a workable, long-term coalition not possible? Is it so hard for a nation of eight lakh people to get along? The sad part is that ethnic Fijians and ethnic Indians can form the perfect coalition, but of late the dominant feature of Fiji is its politics of divisiveness.

Underlying the elections was a definite fear that an ethnic Indian-dominated government would be bad for Fiji. Whatever the final pronouncements from international observers on the elections (the polling process received approval), the fact remains that Fijian society is left to cope with the same set of forces that were in operation before the August election.

The 1997 Constitution, which sanctioned an unhappy marriage between open and communal seats, does perpetuate what were once called separate electorates. Of the 71 seats in the House of Representatives, 23 are reserved for ethnic Fijians and 19 for Indians, while 25 are "open". Three seats are set aside for general communal electors and one for the minuscule Rotuman community.

Laisenia Qarase has more than once said that "Fijians have lost political control" of their country. Fijians, he said, while constituting 52 per cent of the population and owning 84 per cent of the land, have only 23 seats in Parliament. What Qarase means is that ethnic Fijians must decide the course of the country. That is, Indo-Fijians must live as a political minority, and let the "big brothers" decide policy.

Such an approach is bound to lead to further divisions and tensions. For now there may be some degree of "stability" in the form of an elected government, but that is unlikely to satisfy democratic-minded Fijians. Indo-Fijians, for their part, will be waiting and watching.

In the long-term, the politics of vote-banks and communal cards cannot help Fiji. Ethnic Indians, large numbers of whom are now migrating overseas, will remain divorced from the structures of governance.

Fijian politics does not set a very good example for other multi-racial, multi-ethnic societies. The defeat of moderate forces and the ascendancy of the extremist ones will have long-term consequences for this picturesque South Pacific nation.

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