REVIEW AND COMMENTARY: MARCH 1999: PRELUDE TO THE MAY 1999 GENERAL ELECTIONS INFIJI

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REVIEW AND COMMENTARY

MARCH 1999: PRELUDE TO THE MAY 1999 GENERAL ELECTIONS IN FIJI

Prepared by Dr. Sanjay Ramesh

At the beginning of the month, allegations surfaced against the Ministry of Health that there was rampant favoritism in admitting patients. Following this revelation, the ministry appointed a three-member committee to look at improving the intake procedure to ensure fairness, equality and transparency in the selection system.

On the political front, Navosa chiefs endorsed Adi Kuini Vuikaba Speed as the Fijian Association Party candidate for the Serua/Navosa Open seat. Meanwhile, former Methodist Church president Reverend Manasa Lasaro announced his plans to contest the May general election on a Veitokani ni Lewenivanua Vakarisito ticket.

While Provincial Councils and parties have finalized their nominations, Naitasiri Parliamentarian Dr. Fereti Dewa found himself battling to stay in Parliament after being expelled from the Fijian Association Party. But a bigger problem emerged for Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka after serious rift developed with the United General Party (UGP).

First of all, Rabuka promised two open seats for the Generals, but changed his mind after one of his sitting Ministers, Taufa Vakatale, failed to get nominated. In addition to that, two groups have emerged within the Generals, following the failure of the UGP to nominate the Minister for Health, Leo Smith.

A disgruntled group has now revived the General Voters Party, much to the frustration of the United General Party, which is going to court to stop the breakaway group from using the party symbol. While the struggle among the Generals continue, the Prime Minister’s Office got embroiled in controversy following its attack on Fiji Television (Fiji TV) for interviewing former Commander of the Fiji Military Forces, Ratu Epeli Ganilau.

On March 2, 1999, the Prime Minister’s Office sought an explanation from Fiji Television after it screened a one-hour interview on February 28, 1999. After taking the Prime Minister’s Office to task, the Christian Democratic supporters claim that they have very good support among grassroots Fijians.

On March 27, former Assembly of God General Secretary Ratu Josaia Rayawa was elected the President of the Christian Democratic Party. Ratu Alipate Kubuabola, the interim President, announced the names of some of their candidates to contest the next election, with the remainder to be announced later. "Among the line-up is Army legal advisor Tevita Bukarau, controversial former police officer and a law graduate Naipote Vere, Lautoka lawyer Kitione Vuetaki, former Army Commander Ratu Epeli Ganilau, former Methodist Church president Manasa Lasaro, political activist Salote Qalo, University of the South Pacific Professor Asesela Ravuvu, and Lily King of Women in Politics." (Fiji Village News, 27 March, 1999)

On the trade front, Cabinet, on March 2, 1999, approved the new Fiji/Australia Trade and Economic Relations Agreement (FATERA) to boost trade and economic cooperation between the two countries.

"With the decline in the comparative advantage and trade benefits to Fiji of the regional SPARTECA arrangement, Fiji and Australia have negotiated a successor Agreement that would enhance both trade and economic cooperation between the two countries in an international environment that is fast moving towards a deregulated market.

The Agreement is a Framework Agreement which is very general in nature to allow for industry-specifics to be later negotiated and appended to the Agreement. An example of this is the draft Memorandum of Understanding now being finalized between the TCF Councils of Fiji and Australia.

Commodity trade with Australia continues to be in Australia’s favor with trade deficits increasing from A$161,314 million in 1993/1994 to A$259,596 million in 1996/1997, falling slightly to A$219,629 million in 1997/1998. However, Fiji garment exports to Australia continue to increase and in 1996 approximately 54 percent of the TCF products made in Fiji were sold in the Australian market.

Fiji’s exports to Australia have increased from $163,434 million in 1993/1994 to $306,555 million in 1997/1998. When we add to this, Fiji’s foreign exchange earnings from Australian tourist visitors to Fiji, the trade gap between the two countries would be quite close, though still in Australia’s favor. Australia will continue to be an important market for Fiji due to its proximity. It is, therefore, envisaged that the new Agreement (FATERA) will allow for the development of more trade between the two countries increasingly in Fiji’s favor. (Ministry of Information News Release, March 2, 1999)

Cabinet has also endorsed the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) Trade Agreement and the inclusion of a product list of 231 products. These products will be traded at preferential tariff rates among Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon and Vanuatu, the current members of the MSG Trade Agreement.

The products include both agriculture and manufactured items. Trade within the MSG members has been minimal in the past, with Fiji’s exports to these countries accounting to only 1.3 percent of total exports in 1996, and 1.5 percent in 1997. Imports from MSG countries accounted for only 0.07 percent of Fiji’s total imports in 1996 and 0.11 percent in 1997. (Ministry of Information News Release, March 3, 1999)

On the diplomatic front, a number of government faithful got rewarding posts abroad. Among them are former Fijian Affairs Minister Ratu Finau Mara, who is Fiji’s permanent representative to the United Nations. He replaces Poseci Bune. Former Ministry of Education permanent secretary Amraiya Naidu has been appointed counselor with the rank of ambassador at Fiji’s Permanent Mission to the UN. He will also be High Commissioner to Canada. High Commissioner to Malaysia Ratu Isoa Gavidi will replace Isikeli Mataitoga at the mission in Australia. He will also be accredited to Singapore. Adi Samanunu Talakuli Cakobau succeeds Ratu Isoa as high commissioner to Malaysia, with accreditation to Thailand and the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. Former chief magistrate Sekove Naqiolevu has been appointed high commissioner to Papua New Guinea with accreditation to Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands. (Fiji Times 6/03/99)

While the government rewarded its friends, some ten of its sitting Members of Parliament failed to be nominated for the May general election. Among them are Deputy Prime Minister Taufa Vakatale and Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forests Militoni Leweniqila.

The Assistant Minister for Information, Ratu Josefa Dimuri, also was not nominated. The Prime Minister, on March 19, 1999, clarified that the ten failed to receive endorsement from their respective Provincial Councils. The Prime Minister also noted that there were not many women applicants, despite encouragement from the SVT.

On March 11, the Attorney-General, Ratu Etuate Tavai, maintained that the interests of indigenous landowners would remain paramount with the passing of the Bill to reform the Civil Aviation Authority of Fiji. The comments were made following reservations from Senator Manu Korovulavula.

Meanwhile, the government responded to applications from the Native Land Trust Board on behalf of the Suvavou landowners and approved the return to the landowners of two areas in Suva to meet their land needs. One of the areas is the 35-acre area commonly known as Flagstaff Park. This land is currently being held by the State. The second area is a four-acre site on Vaturua Lane, off Service Street. Government will be selling the five institutional quarters on the site which belong to the Fijian Affairs Board, but the land will revert to the Suvavou landowners and the house sites will be provided on a lease basis to the house purchasers.

In another development, villagers from Suva initiated court action to reclaim the land which they allege to have been illegally usurped by Ratu Seru Cakobau. The group claims that they are the rightful owners of all of Suva peninsula, including Suva City.

While government struggles with land claims from various mataqali throughout Fiji, the plight of Rewa Dairy hit the headlines once again. Cabinet, in a special meeting on March 19, 1999, discussed the problems of the financially stricken Rewa Rice Limited. It was decided that the government, at least for the time being, will help bail out the company.

The Rewa Dairy situation was accentuated following revelations that hundreds of dairy farmers will be affected if Rewa Dairy is liquidated. Apart from assisting the dairy industry, government has been unduly slow and bureaucratic over re-settling displaced farmers in Navua, due to delays in paperwork by the ALTA Resettlement Unit. "The Navua project began eight months ago but there are no signs of farmers settling at Vakabalea because the unit has been unable to give them offer letters. Unit spokesman Saimoni Tuilaucala said letters to interested tenants were being drafted and some clauses in the agreement had yet to be clarified." (Fiji Times 03/19/99)

With ALTA certainly being a hot political issue for the election campaign, there are some interesting developments on the Fijian side. The Minister for Works, Viliame Cavubati, will go against Adi Koila Nailatikau in the battle for the Lau communal seat. Meanwhile, the Vanua Tako Lavo party candidate, Jo Rusaqoli, claimed that the SVT Parliamentarians are using government vehicles for the party campaign in the Northern division. Sacked Fiji Pine chief executive Konisi Yabaki will represent the SVT for the Lomaivuna/Namosi/Kadavu Open seat. He was one of the candidates endorsed at a Soqosoqo ni Vakavulewa ni Taukei management board meeting on March 18, 1999.

Here is the full list announced by Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka. Bua: Aminiasi Turaga; Kadavu: James Ah Koy; Lau: Viliame Cavubati; Lomaiviti: Jone Kauvesi; Nadroga/Navosa: Seruwaia Hong Tiy; Naitasiri: Solomone Naivalu; Namosi: Kiniviliame Taukeinikoro; Rewa: Ro Epeli Mataitini; Serua: Misaeli Driubalavu; Ba East: Isimeli Bose; Ba West: Ratu Etuate Tavai; Tailevu North: Savenaca Tokainavo; Tailevu South: Lagisoa Delana; Cakaudrove East: Ratu Inoke Kubuabola; Cakaudrove West: Ratu Kinijoji Maivalili; North East Urban: Isireli Leweniqila; North West Urban: Vilisoni Cagimaivei; South West Urban: Kelemedi Bulewa; Suva City: Filipe Bole; Tamavua/Laucala: Jonetani Kaukimoce; Nasinu: Avolosi Biuvakaloloma; Macuata and Ra to be confirmed. Serua/Navosa: Mesulame Narawa; Cakaudrove West: Sitiveni Rabuka; Lau/Taveuni/Rotuma: Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu; Cunningham: Berenado Vunibobo; Laucala Beach: Mosese Uluicicia; Lami: Mere Samisoni; Lomaivuna/Namosi/Kadavu: Konisi Yabaki; Tavua: Ratu Kilioni Taukena; Ra, Bua/Macuata West, Tailevu North/Ovalau, Tailevu South/Lomaiviti seats to be confirmed.

While government is busy campaigning, things are not going well on the industrial relations front. On March 20, 1999 there was a protest march through Lautoka city by Civil Aviation and Fiji Electricity Workers. The workers want the Minister for Trade and Public Enterprises sacked. The protest march comes in the light of government moves to corporatize the two organizations. Opposition political parties and unions are unhappy over the way in which the government is proceeding with the restructuring program. It is believed that the workers have given the Fiji Trades Union Congress (FTUC) the mandate to strike, and a strike date will be set soon.

Apart from the turmoil on the industrial front, the National Federation Party officially launched its election campaign in Lautoka on March 21, 1999. Some 1,500 supporters gathered to attend the launch, where the candidate for Lautoka Rural seat was named. He is Anand Singh. On March 25, at a election rally in Suva, University of the South Pacific academic and NFP candidate, Dr. Wadan Narsey, praised Rabuka for being a great leader and stated that he had both the quality and the ability to lead Fiji into the new millennium.

The National Federation Party is fielding some very good candidates for the May general elections. Plans are that if the NFP/SVT/UGP coalition wins the election, Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka will continue as Prime Minister and opposition leader Jai Ram Reddy will become Deputy Prime Minister. While the National Federation Party and the SVT have sorted out their differences, the coalition between the Fiji Labor Party, the Fijian Association Party and the Party of National Unity was under threat of falling apart over allocation of candidates for the Ba open seats. On March 22, Party of National Unity Secretary General Apisai Tora confirmed that the three parties will field parallel candidates for the four open seats in the Ba constituency.

Indications are that the main struggle for seats will be between the Soqosoqo ni Vakevulewa ni Taukei, National Federation Party and the United General Party coalition on one hand and the Fiji Labor Party, Fijian Association Party and the Party of National Unity on the other.

Other smaller parties, like the Fijian Nationalist Party and the Christian Democratic Party, have the potential for creating an electoral upset in mostly Fijian communal seats. However, the same cannot be said for Indian communal seats. It will be a two-way fight between the Fiji Labor Party and the National Federation Party. Political pundits prognosticate a split in the Indian communal seats between Labor and NFP.

For the open seats, the situation will be a little different. Which way the seats will go will depending on the ethnic make-up of the constituencies and, more importantly, the popular appeal of the candidates. On the Fijian communal side, the SVT may wisk away a majority of the seats, but will face stiff opposition from the Fijian Association, Christian Democratic and the Fijian Nationalist parties. Predictions are that the SVT/NFP and UGP are better placed to win enough seats to form the next government.

Prepared by Dr. Sanjay Ramesh.

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