A widening divide

Published : Sep 29, 2001 00:00 IST

Fiji is back on the democratic path with a newly elected government, but it is still some distance away from restoring the communal harmony that was fractured following the coup of May 2000.

THE smooth conduct of general elections in Fiji between August 25 and September 1 has brought the country back into the comity of democratic nations. For all purposes now, Fiji is back on the democratic path with a new elected government, even though it is some distance away from restoring the communal harmony that was fractured during the coup last year. The Commonwealth has been quick to rescind Fiji's post-coup suspension from its ranks. The newly elected Prime Minister, Laisenia Qarase, is slated to lead the country back into the councils of the Commonwealth at its next summit in Australia in October.

The United Nations Fiji Electoral Observer Mission (UNFEOM) has reported that the elections were conducted in a transparent manner. The UNFEOM, comprising representatives of 18 countries, maintained close contact with Fiji's electoral authorities, voters, candidates and political party representatives. UNFEOM teams visited almost 95 per cent of the 818 polling stations that were open throughout the week-long elections, travelling even to the remote island groups.

The election results showed a sharp polarisation of votes. The Sogosogo Duavata ni Lewanivanua (SDL), the party floated by Qarase just three months before the elections, won 31 seats in the 71-member House of Representatives. Ousted Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry's Fiji Labour Party (FLP) won 27 seats. A splinter faction of the Labour Party, the National Labour Unity Party (NLUP) won two seats, and the National Federation Party (NFP) and the United General Party (UGP) one seat each. Two independent candidates were also elected. The Matanitu Vanua (Confederacy of the Indigenous Peoples), also known as the Conservative Alliance, which nominated the leader of the hostage-takers, George Speight, won six seats, including one by Speight himself. Qarase himself secured a resounding victory, polling 90 per cent of the votes in the Lau Provincial Communal seat.

The negotiations to get the support of 37 MPs to form the government began even as the last round of results were coming in. Initially, the NLUP, the NFP and the UGP were not ready to align with the radical SDL. But the other option of the SDL aligning with the Conservative Alliance was even worse. After winning a surprising number of six seats, the Conservative Alliance came to believe that it held the key to government formation. The party demanded two Cabinet positions and the Speaker's post for Militoni Lewanqila. It also demanded amnesty for Speight and his accomplices. However, neither the SDL nor the FLP could agree to the demand for amnesty. Qarase then managed to get the support of the two independents, the NLUP and the NFP, and declared that he had a working majority. He was appointed Prime Minister soon after.

Laisenia Qarase, a banker-turned-politician, was the Fijian Army's nominee for the post of Interim Prime Minister after the coup. He also had the approval of the rebels, who had overthrown the government of Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry in May 2000. Qarase ruled for just about a year without any Opposition, and has now become the legitimately elected leader of the country. But he does not have an easy task ahead of him for electoral legitimacy brings with it the need for responsibility and accountability. Qarase is now answerable to the people and to the House of Representatives that he leads.

The Constitution that was unanimously adopted in 1997 provided for a coalition government in order to reflect both sections of opinion in the Lower House. Under the Constitution, any party that won more than eight seats in the House of Representatives had to find a place in the Cabinet. Moreover, the 1997 Constitution was aimed at promoting a partnership among the different ethnic groups in the racially divided country. It mandated a coalition government even if one single party obtained a simple majority in the Lower House.

However, Qarase was adamant that he would not work with Mahendra Chaudhry. Although Qarase complied with the constitutional obligation of inviting the FLP to join his government, his letter of invitation indicated that he hoped that the party would opt not to join his government. Qarase said that it would be an "unworkable government" and added that "Chaudhry is an impressive speaker, he will make a good Leader of Opposition". Accepting the offer, Chaudhry said that the two could work together if there was genuine commitment and added that the role of the Opposition was better served from within.

Qarase was still not willing to include the FLP. The Fiji Times wrote: "By excluding Chaudhry and his Members of Parliament, Qarase breaks what is the supreme law of this land. This is not an auspicious way in which to begin his term as legally elected leader of 800,000 people of different races, religions and cultures. While his apprehension of Chaudhry is understandable, it is illegal. Such an act would cause frustration for the administration and heartache for the people. Fiji has come through a time of unprecedented trial and tribulation. Once again racism, distrust and discord will threaten the very fragment of an already divided society. No one citizen can afford this. He must do the right thing, not for himself but for the nation which he must lead."

Even as the FLP waited for the Prime Minister's call, Qarase chose a 26-member Cabinet which included two members of the Conservative Alliance, one from the moderate group and the two independents. His Cabinet did not have representatives of the ethnic Indian community, which constitutes 44 per cent of the total population, or of the people of European and part European origin. Meanwhile, the NLUP's Kenneth Zuick was called upon by his party to resign his position in the Cabinet, but he was yet to do so. It remains to be seen whether he will lose his seat if the party decides to expel him. The General Voters Party (GVP) strongly criticised the Prime Minister as its agreement with the SDL had stated that the party would have no truck with ultra-nationalists. The GVP said that by aligning with the Conservative Alliance, Qarase had sent wrong signals about his government as it now reflected only the nationalistic Fijian opinion.

Chaudhry may move the courts against the violation of constitutional norms. In the past, the courts in Fiji have struck down policies that went against the Constitution. For instance, the Court of Appeal held that the post-coup abrogation of the 1997 Constitution and the appointment of the interim government led by Qarase illegal. This, in turn, resulted in the elections. The courts had struck down two major decisions - the appointment of a constitution review committee and the imposition of the Value Added Tax (VAT) - of Qarase's interim government. If the court decides against Qarase and his decision on government formation, it will lead to a longer phase of political bad blood and call into question decisions taken by his government.

ACCORDING to the Conservative Alliance, the main concerns of indigenous Fijians are centred on three points. First, they do not understand the 1997 Constitution; second, they have the perception that it does not protect the special rights and interests of Fijians; and third, the consultation process was not followed. The party believes that land must be used to promote and facilitate the economic development of indigenous Fijians. Other radical Fijians point out that despite being the original people of the land, constituting the majority in the country and owning 84 per cent of the land, they are denied political domination. Qarase has promised to review the Constitution in order to ensure political domination of Fijians in the country.

Fiji has had three Constitutions in 31 years. The 1990 Constitution gave indigenous Fijians a majority in Parliament. However, the fragmentation in the Fijian polity forced them to seek the support of other ethnic groups to form the government. The recent elections showed an even greater fragmentation in ethnic Fijian ranks and it was only the fact that they shared a common threat perception about Mahendra Chaudhry that brought the two main Fijian parties together. Although the 1997 Consti-tution was unanimously accepted by both Houses of Parliament and the tribal chiefs of Fiji, the coup served to revive the demand for Fijian supremacy.

The two most important tasks ahead for Prime Minister Qarase are to return the country to the rule of law and work for its economic development. With him as head of the government, both the Army and the police would like to see the government complete its five-year term. The coup had unleashed a mood of insecurity among Indian-Fijians after the riots that took place in the Nausori area, just outside the capital Suva. Farms owned by ethnic Indians were attacked and cattle slaughtered by marauding gangs of Fijian youth. Similar incidents occurred in other regions and increased the sense of insecurity among the majority of ethnic Indians. Although the Army helped to control the civil disturbances, the period created an environment that seemed tolerant of violence. Moreover, most of those who were involved in the disturbances are yet to be called to account.

The coup widened the fissures between the main ethnic groups, and the elections have done little to repair the damage. The moderate Fijian parties got marginalised, and the two Fijian parties with extreme views about the Indian community now run the government. The parties that occupied the middle ground were rejected by the voters. The electorate, by and large, voted along racial lines, and the results reflect the size of the two major communities. While the moderate Fijian parties lost ground to the SDL and the Conservative Alliance, Indians voted mostly for the FLP. The Fijian Association Party leader, Adi Kuini Speed, Deputy Prime Minister in the Chaudhry government, lost her seat. The SVT party, floated by Sitiveni Rabuka, the leader of the first coup in Fiji in 1987, seems to have lost its place in Fijian politics with the emergence of radical Fijian parties. SVT leader Filipe Bole has said that it will go back to the drawing board to review its defeat in the general elections and plan a better strategy for the future. Unable to project itself as a strong, united party, the NFP lost it traditional Indian voters to the FLP.

On the economic front, according to a Fiji Canegrowers Association estimate, sugar production fell by about one million tonnes last year. About 150,000 people in Fiji are dependent on the sugar industry that forms one-third of the country's industrial activity. Over 60 per cent of the population live on subsistence agriculture, and low wages and the lack of employment are the most important causes of poverty in the islands. While public sector investment has been stagnant since 1996, political instability in the country has kept private investment at a low level.

If the SDL in coalition with the Conservative Alliance should choose to adopt a hardline stance vis-a-vis the Indian community, it will lead to a period of combative and divisive politics. Such a stance, in turn, will leave little time to address the primary needs of the people. Reconciliation will remain a distant dream in Fiji unless the Qarase government makes sincere efforts to promote the need for adjustment in the multi-racial society.

Shubha Singh is a freelance writer who has lived and worked in Fiji. She is the author of Fiji: A Precarious Coalition (Har Anand, Delhi, 2001).

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