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SOUTH PACIFIC: Post Polls, Fiji Faces Uncertain Future

Analysis by Kalinga Seneviratne

SYDNEY, May 20 2006 (IPS) - While the Fiji Labour Party (FLP) of Mahendra Chaudhry has agreed to join Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase’s new government, rather than sit in the opposition, few are willing to bet on the longevity of the multi-party arrangement in Fiji, a country notorious for its brittle racial relations

Most political analysts in Fiji predict instability for the country, whose divisions along racial lines showed up once again at the just concluded polls with the country’s Indo-Fijian ethnic minority voting en bloc for Chaudhry’s FLP, while indigenous Fijians mainly voted for the SDL party.

Significantly, the deputy chairman of the Assembly of Christian Churches, Ratu Epeli Kanaimawi, has been quoted as saying that the deal between the FLP and Qarase’s SDL (Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua) party would not last.

”Knowing what the two parties stand for, I am of the view that it won’t work. It will be worth giving it a try, but it won’t work,” Ratu Epeli was quoted as saying in Fiji Times.

SDL won 36 seats in the 71-member parliament against the 31 claimed by FLP with the other four going to smaller parties and independents.

Under Fiji’s constitution, a newly-elected prime minister must offer cabinet portfolios to any party which polls over 10 percent on a pro-rata basis. Thus, Qarase was forced to offer seven cabinet positions to Chaudhry’s party. Though the two leaders do not see eye-to-eye on most issues, they had promised, during the election campaign, to cooperate with each other.

Chaudhry, who refused a similar offer after the 2001 polls, accepted the present one but with some reservations. Speaking to presspersons on Thursday, he attacked Qarase saying he was incapable of providing leadership to the nation but admitted that the portfolios offered to the FLP were substantial.

FLP has been given the agriculture, health, commerce, labour, local government, energy and mineral resources and the environment portfolios. Much horse trading is expected over the weekend before the cabinet line-up is ready to be announced on Monday.

On paper, Chaudhry’s acceptance of Qarase’s offer seems to portent well for race relations and political stability. His acceptance came on the anniversary of businessman George Speight’s coup on May 19, 2000, following which Chaudhry (then prime minister) and his cabinet (mainly indigenous Fijian) were held hostage at the parliamentary complex in Suva for 56 days.

Earlier this month, Sitiveni Rabuka who led a coup in 1987 against an Indo-Fijian dominated government was charged with mutiny. He is currently on bail but Speight and in his followers are in jail.

Qarase, recently, tried to get past parliament a number of bills which could provide amnesty to the 2000 coup conspirators, but the FLP has strongly opposed the move. The coup had overthrown a government led by Chaudhry, the country’s first ethnic Indian prime minister.

Also opposed to the amnesty plan is Fiji’s armed force commander Commodore Voreque Bainimarama who told Australia’s ABC Radio, on Thursday, that he would fight the SDL-led government ‘’all the way” if it goes ahead with the ‘Reconciliation Bill’, that he says is racist and designed to let the coup plotters get away scot-free.

But there have been calls since for the sacking of Bainimarama, who arrested the coup leaders and ended the hostage crisis.

In an editorial, on Friday, ‘Fiji Times’ said Bainimarama had become a threat to national security and stability. “That danger and threat have to be removed for the sake of the nation. And as his employer, it is the government’s task to do something about it quickly,” the editorial said.

Another prominent paper, the ‘Fiji Sun’ said, also in an editorial, that the country owed a debt of gratitude to the military for putting down the coup but that ‘’the gratitude capital has now been spent”.

For his part, Bainimarama has welcomed the proposed coalition. He was quoted by Fijian media as saying that the multi-party government was constitutionally sound and that the involvement of the Labour Party would mean that the Reconciliation Bill would be shelved.

Welcoming Fiji’s first multi-party government, Kamlesh Arya, president of the Hindu-Indian organisation, the Arya Pratindhi Sabha, called on all elected leaders in a statement to ‘’work in the interest of the nation rather than remaining in the racial compartments they have been elected from”.

In a conciliatory mood, Qarase said on Friday that, since Chaudhry has accepted his cabinet offer, he would have to reconsider his position on the Reconciliation Bill but predicted ‘’interesting times ahead for this country”.

Brought in as indentured labour by British colonials to work in sugar plantations between 1879 and 1916 and later joined by traders, the Indian population on the island had overtaken that of the indigenous Fijians by the mid-1960s. But following Rabuka’s 1987 coup over 100,000 Indians emigrated to countries like Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada.

Fiji’s total population is now estimated to stand at 900,000 people. There has been no census conducted in the last 10 years but Fiji’s statistical bureau estimated Indo-Fijians to be forming 38 percent of the population in 2004.

‘Fiji Times’ regretted that there are provisions in the constitution, which classify citizens according to their ethnicity and, worse, provide special rights and privileges to some. “As long as these provisions exist, the people will continue to see themselves as not one people, one nation but different people, one nation.”

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