CANDIDATES AND CAMPAIGNS: PREPARATION FOR THE FIJI GENERAL ELECTIONS

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By Dr. Sanjay Ramesh

The month of April started with the re-introduction of the debate over the Sunday ban. The Christian Democratic Party’s policy on Sunday observance provoked a strong reaction from the United General Party’s President, David Pickering.

On 29 March, Mr. Pickering lashed out at the Christian Democrats for promoting intolerance among Fiji’s multicultural community. However, a spokesperson for the Christian Democrats, Salote Qalo, defended the party’s policy, clarifying that the party manifesto encourages rest and family life on Sundays and if elected to government, the Democrats would ensure that essential services are maintained on the Sabbath.

Interestingly, there are two Indians vying for seats under the Christian Democrat banner. "Raymond Narayan Nair and Daven Singh will contest the election for the Christian political party. Nair is expected to contest for a Suva seat and Singh is likely to contest for a Ba seat (Fiji Village News, 29 March 1999)." Here is a full list of Christian Democrat candidates selected by the party to contest the May general election.

Fijian Communal Provincial: Mitieli Bulanauca - Bua; Ratu Alipate Vosawale- Kadavu; Etuate Basaga Cagilaba - Lomaviti; Poseci Bune - Macuata; Professor Asesela Ravuvu - Naitasiri; Tevita Bukarau - Rewa; Josateki Nasova - Serua; Ratu Joji Naliva Naisau - Ba East; Vilive Ravouvou - Ba West; Amelia Tagicakibau - Tailevu South; Inoke Tabualevu - Cakaudrove East; Salote Qalo - Cakaudrove West. Fijian Communal Urban Taniela Tabu - North East; Kitione Vuataki - North West; Naipote Vere - South West; Tagici Lily King - Suva City; Reverend Manasa Lasaro - Tamavua/Laucala; Inoke Luveni - Nasinu.

Open Seats: Josefa Vosanibola - Tailevu North/Ovalau; Josua Tubu Uluiviti - Tailevu South/Lomaiviti; Vilikesa Mocelutu - Nausori/Naitasiri; Peniasi D Silatolu - Nasinu/Rewa; Saimoni Lutu - Cunningham; Ro Miriama Cama Rayawa - Laucala; Raymond Nair- Samabula/Tamavua; Viliame Gonelevu - Suva City; Reverend Samuela Ratulevu - Lami; Isikeli Nasoga - Lomaivuna/Nausori/Kadavu; Joji Banuve - Ra; Ratu Viliame Bouwalu Saumaimuri - Tavua; Davend Singh - Ba; Etuate Kautoga - Magodro; Manoa Dobui - Lautoka City; Desmond Ben Sagaitu - Vuda; Ratu Josefa Vatunitu - Nadi; Jone Nalewatobo Kagi - Yasawa/Nawaka; Isaia Gonewai - Serua/Navosa; Ratu Meli Ramatai - Bua/Macuata West; Sakeo Tuiwainikai - Labasa; Joeli Tumuri - Macuata East; Ratu Aisake Kubuabola - Cakaudrove West; Ratu Epeli Ganilau - Lau/Taveuni/Rotuma (The Fiji Times, 8 April 1999 also see Fijilive, 8 April 1999).

There are concerns that influential members of the Methodist Church of Fiji are using the church to recruit members for the new Christian Democratic Party. Supporting such a move is the President of the Methodist Church Reverend Tomasi Kanailagi, who presided over the launch of the Christian party in 1998 and again at the Party’s election rally in Suva. A small group within the church believe that politics should not be mixed with religion.

Former leader of the Methodist Church, Dr. Ilaitia Tuwere (1996 to 1998) was a strong proponent of the idea of strict separation between church and politics. However, unfortunately, all that has changed with the new church leadership, which is encouraging members to play an active role in politics.

In fact, there are some important chiefly families that are supporting the party, including the daughter of the late President, Ratu Penaia Ganilau and his son Ratu Epeli Ganilau. Also among the chiefly line-up is Adi Koila Mara Nailatikau, who is endorsed by the Lau Provincial Council. Not to mention other interesting candidates like the former Fiji’s Ambassador to the United Nations and party leader, Poseci Bune, who is standing against SVT’s Ratu Josefa Dimuri.

Furthermore, Mr. Bune caused a furore after alleging that the SVT government is corrupt to the core. Citing the Tony Stephens and the National Bank of Fiji scandals, Bune alleged that ministers accumulated wealth and privilege by misusing their position. In response, the SVT issued a strong rebuke and suggested that Bune produce evidence to support his claim.

With the Christian Democratic Party finalizing its candidates for the election, on 30 March, The Fiji Daily Post reported that the office of the Auditor General has begun investigating the operations of the Commodity Development Fund, operated by the Ministry of Agriculture.

Meanwhile, the Minister for Agriculture lashed out at the Auditor General for disclosing to the media the details of the proposed audit. The Minister revealed that some $41 million was allocated to the Ministry out of which some $33 million was spent, and $8 million allocated to the ALTA Resettlement Unit. While the Auditor pursues both the Commodity Development Fund and the army’s Regimental Fund, the government acquiesced to the demands of the Saunaka landowners and transferred land not used by Nadi International Airport.

Under the Crowns Land Act, the government has transferred the administration of the land to the Native Land Trust Board, which will be in-charge of collecting rent on behalf of the Nadi landowners. It is estimated that the annual rent from the land at Nadi Airport totals $75,000 (The Fiji Times, 31 March 1999). Nevertheless, the landowners are not happy with the government gesture and strongly endorse the position that some 400 acres of land should revert to them. The members of the landowning unit and the Native Land Trust Board held emergency meeting (Fiji Village News, 31 March 1999) on the afternoon of 31 March to rectify the situation. However, unfortunately, both sides failed to reach an agreement, and on 8 April, Saunaka landowners threatened to close down Nadi International Airport.

Fearing a possible backlash, the government, for the time being, diffused a possibly volatile situation by convening a high-powered meeting with the landowners on 9 April. Following the meeting, the landowners suspended their threats to close Nadi Airport (The Fiji Daily Post, 10 April, 1999). Meetings nevertheless continued on 12 April with the government exploring the possibility of making the landowners shareholders in the new Airports Fiji Limited (the successor organization to the Civil Aviation Authority of Fiji).

Among the participants were the Permanent Secretary for Fijian Affairs Ratu Meli Bainimarama; Secretary to Cabinet, Jioji Kotobalavu; Permanent Secretary for Lands Rupeni Timote, and Nainendra Nand. Landowners and Native Land Trust Board officials were also present (The Fiji times, 12 April 1999). Following this meeting, it was resolved that the matter will now be handled by a committee, which will make recommendations to the cabinet for a final decision.

Besides the Nadi Airport land saga, on 15 April, landowners from the Lawaki village in Lautoka turned off the main key of the Varaqe dam which supplies water to the resident of Lautoka. According to the Public Works Department, the landowners demanded compensation for the land on which the water pipe line reserve is located. The actions of the landowners were strongly criticized by the Attorney General, who pointed out that the landowners acted in contravention of a court injunction, which prohibited the owners from causing any disruptions to the operation of the Vaqare dam.

Nevertheless, discussions between the legal counsel for the landowners, Anu Patel and the government continued after which it was announced that as part of a settlement, the landowners of Tokatoka Nakarukuruku will on Friday, 23 April receive $45,000 from the government. (Fiji Village News, 17 April, 1999).

On the Indian front, the election campaign went into full swing with the assault of the Fiji Labour Party candidate Vinod Chandra Deo Maharaj in Vuda. Both the Fiji Labour Party and the National Federation Party have announced its candidates and the line-up is very impressive.

For the Indian Communal seats the breakdown is as follows: VitiLevu East/Maritime NFP’s Dhirend Kumar is contesting against FLP’s Krishna Chand Sharma. In Tavua NFP’s Narendra Reddy will take on the sitting Fiji Labour Party Member of Parliament Anand Babla. In Ba East, NFP’s Ram Lajendra takes on Gaffar Ahmed, who was the compromise candidate, elected unopposed in 1995, following the death of FLP MP Harnam Singh Golian. In Ba West, sitting NFP MP Vinod Patel is contesting the seat. Labour has selected Ami Chand, but indications are that Mr. Patel will easily win this seat.

Apart from being a successful businessman, Mr. Patel has constantly kept in touch with his constituency in Ba and provided all kinds of support for the needy and helpless. In Lautoka Rural, the NFP is fielding Azmat Khan while the FLP endorsed Anand Singh. In Lautoka City, Fiji Cane Growers Association Secretary General and NFP candidate, Jaganath Sami takes on University of the South Pacific academic and FLP candidate Dr. Ganesh Chand. In Vuda NFP’s Swani Kumar Maharaj takes on FLP’s Vinod Chandra Deo Maharaj. For the Nadi Urban seat, NFP candidate Dorsami Naidu takes on Amjad Ali. For Nadi Rural NFP candidate Davendra Pratap is going to challenge Shiu Sharan Sharma of the Fiji Labour Party.

Shiu has been very active in his constituency and has a very good chance of retaining his seat. In Nadroga, NFP candidate Mohammed Azam Khalil takes on FLP’s Lekh Ram Vyeshnoi. While Labour has held this seat, there are concerns that changes in constituent boundary may lead to an interesting battle between the two. For Viti Levu South-Kadavu, NFP MP Maan Singh will battle it out with Prince Gopal Latchman. For Suva City, the National Federation Party is fielding Dr. Wadan Narsey while the FLP is banking its hopes on Narayan Deo. For the Laucala Indian Communal Seat: Fiji Labour Party candidate Hikmat Singh Verma will attempt to dislodge Attar Singh of the NFP.

This seat will be a close one, because both candidates have established a good rapport with the members of the constituency. In Vanua Levu West seat, USP academic Dr. Biman Chand will stand on an NFP ticket against FLP’s Anup Kumar. On 12 April, Dr. Biman predicted that the NFP will make a clean sweep in the North. However, his claims seem a little over optimistic, considering the strong support enjoyed by the Fiji Labour Party in the northern cane belt. In Labasa, NFP’s Keshwan Padayachi will have an uphill battle against FLP’s Muttu Swami, who was elected with an impressive margin in 1998. For Macuata East-Cakaudrove, Satish Gulabdas will be against FLP’s Gyanendra Prasad. In Tailevu/Rewa, FLP is fielding Ragho Nand against NFP’s Aptar Singh. All in all, a total of 19 Indian communal seats will be up for grabs.

The National Federation Party launched its official election campaign at the end of May and on Saturday 10 April, the Fiji Labour Party/Fijian Association and Party of National Unity coalition launched its election campaign at the Girmit Center in Lautoka. In its manifesto the coalition promised to scrap Value Added Tax (VAT) and declared war on corruption, crime and unemployment. Apart from laying down its manifesto, the coalition criticized the government for being a "total failure." Here is a list from the coalition statement dated 12 April.

With political parties getting on with its election plans, minority groups are not happy with the existing constituency boundaries. One such group, the Rotumans are up in arms over what they claim is an unfair constituency boundary. The Rotuma Independent Movement, Aleki Kafoa, encouraged Rotumans to boycott the elections (Fijilive, 1 April 1999), stating that the whole exercise will be a waste of time for Rotumans.

Under the new arrangement, Rotuma comes under Lau/Taveuni/Rotuma constituency and with the demographic structure of Lau and Taveuni, it is a foregone conclusion that a candidate from one of these two densely populated areas will win the seat. Not only the Rotumans, other smaller parties like the Coalition of Independent Nationals (COIN) have lashed out at the current system as unfair and unjust. With smaller parties and groups clearly displeased with the current electoral arrangement, the Prime Minister was forced to confront yet another allegation of sexual impropriety.

It all began before the 1992 general elections when Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka was accused of sexual misconduct by an Australian journalist. That episode was brushed aside, but problems emerged again after the 1994 general elections. At a cabinet meeting that year, Rabuka was requested to explain his actions regarding his alleged affair with journalist Wainikiti Waqa. There was a barrage of editorials regarding this, including an interesting list of a series of Rabuka’s sexual escapade published by the now defunct "Weekender."

As before, the allegations, even though quite serious, were conveniently swept under the carpet. Five years later, the Kama Sutra scandal has once again put the Prime Minister on defense. Fiji’s media went on the offensive and pre-empted a showdown after disclosing that the woman involved in the scandal was married. In so far as the Prime Minister was concerned, he had done nothing wrong and that he will not waste his time and energy defending a baseless allegation (Fiji Village News, 3 April 1999). No doubt the timing of this scandal will be used by the opposition parties to attack Rabuka who, according to a shock poll, remains the favorite to continue as the Prime Minister of Fiji.

While Prime Minister Rabuka is getting ready to form the next government, Fijian Nationalist Vanua Takolavu Party leader Sakeasi Butadroka hit out at the new constitution. On 6 April 1999, Butadroka elucidated that his party will do away with the 1997 Constitution, which is seen by nationalists as a "sell-out."

The Nationalists argue that too much has been given away in the new constitution and as a result, indigenous Fijians are forced to rely on others for their economic and political advancement. While the nationalists are lamenting over the new constitution, India is all set to open its diplomatic mission in Suva.

"After almost nine years of absence, India will reopen its diplomatic mission in Suva after the general elections and most likely before mid-year. Professor Ishwar Chauhan, 58, is India’s new High Commissioner to Fiji. He was the former Director of the Indian Cultural Centre from 1972 to 1976. He was the vice-chancellor of Barkakullah University of Bhopal, in Madhya Pradesh, India, before his appointment as High Commissioner (The Fiji Times, 6 April 1999)." As the details between India and Fiji for the return if the Indian High Commission are being finalized, things do not look very healthy on the industrial relations front.

On 12 April, the management of the Nadi International Airport was transferred to the newly formed Airports Fiji Limited. However, some 500 workers, most of them members of the Fiji Public Service Association, refused to recognize the new authority, and rejected an offer of redundancy from the Civil Aviation Authority of Fiji. As a result, the FPSA members went on a strike and took their grievances to court, which ruled in the favor of the union members. Nevertheless stop work continued on the 13th as the disputing parties anticipate to convene for a second round of court battle on the 16th (The Fiji Daily Post, 14 April 1999).

As the inustrial dispute between the FPSA and CAAF continues, the General Voters Party decided that it will contest the May 1999 general elections as independents and under a different symbol. "This was after the GVP felt taxpayers’ money would be wasted if an attempt by the United General Party to prevent it from using the GVP name was successful after the elections. Leo Smith, Bill Aull and Kenneth Low will use a star over the sea symbol on their ballot papers (The Fiji Times, 16 April 1999)."

Meanwhile, the Party of National Unity on 15 April agreed to give its second preferential vote to Labour and to affirm its resolve to stay in the coalition. The leader of the Party of National Unity, Apisai Tora, made the announcement, following attacks by the SVT and the NFP that there were problems within the coalition. As part of its election campaign, the National Federation Party has continuously attacked the coalition leadership with an intent to cast doubt in the minds of the electorate on the ability of the coalition to form a stable government.

The bitter war of words continued between the FLP and the NFP candidates with the Fiji Labour Party on 18 April alleging at an election rally in Narere outside Suva that the National Federation Party candidates were paying voters about $20 each in return for their votes (The Fiji Times, 19 April 1999). In addition to that, the Fiji Labour Party requested the Department of Immigration to investigate the involvement of two Australian citizens with the National Federation Party election campaign.

It was reported that university professor Dr. Brij Lal and a former Fiji judge Kishore Govind gave political speech in favor of the National Federation Party and the 1997 Constitution (The Fiji Daily Post, 21 April 1999). The two former Fiji citizens were found not to be in breach of their visitor’s permit (The Fiji Daily Post, 23 April 1999). However, the government on 21 April cautioned foreigners not to involve themselves directly in Fiji politics (The Fiji Times, 22 April 1999). Apart from this, the National Federation Party continued to hammer the Fiji Labour Party with claims that the party is colluding with the Christian Democratic Alliance.

The Leader of Opposition, Jai Ram Reddy, told supporters at a rally on 24 April that the Fiji Labour Party was bent on dividing the country and misleading the people with hidden agendas and designs. Concerns by the NFP were raised after opposition parties made it clear that none of its preferences will go to the SVT/NFP/UGP coalition (The Fiji Times, 24 April, 1999). In another development in favor of the NFP, Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka publicly apologized to the Fiji’s Indian community for executing the two bloodless military coups in 1987. The apology, however, is used by the NFP to demonstrate to ambivalent Indian voters that Rabuka is a changed person now.

As the election campaign heats up, some interesting claims have surfaced, especially from the Christian Democratic Alliance candidate Napote Vere who dropped a bombshell by alluding to a possible plot by senior police officers to overthrow the government in an event the ruling Soqosoqo ni Vakevulewa ni Taukei party failed to win the May elections.

According to Napote, the government conducted mass recruiting for the Nasinu Mobile Unit, which is suspected to be a staging ground for a coup (Fijilive, 22 April 1999). In another serious allegation, Christian Democrat, Inoke Sikivou, "published an opinion column in the Volasiga of 18 April, 1999 in which he alleged that the posting last year of various civil servants were either friends or relatives of Prime Minister Rabuka.

According to Inoke, this was done to ensure that the ballot boxes are opened by SVT sympathizers and if need be replaced with fraudulent boxes to ensure the victory of the SVT/NFP/UGP Coalition in this General Election (Fijilive, 22 April 1999, also see The Fiji Daily Post, 22 April 1999)." The SVT has severely criticized both allegations as frivolous and baseless and is further considering defamation action against Inoke Sikivou.

In fact, the Christian Democrats, so far, have run an impressive campaign, hitting hard on the message that seven years of SVT government failed indigenous Fijians and bred nothing more than nepotism and clientelism. The Democrats point out that the programs currently adopted by the government will further fuel unemployment at a time when unemployment among Fijian youths was at an all time high.

The opposition’s message throughout the election campaign seem fairly consistent. The Fiji Labour Party, Party of National Unity, Fijian Association Party, Christian Democratic Alliance and the General Voters Party are dead against privatization of basic public utilities, including water, sewerage and electricity.

Also of concern is the restructuring of Civil Aviation Authority of Fiji and the subsequent loss of some 500 jobs there. This discontent with government’s economic policies has forced a large number of USP academics towards the opposition. They are Professor Tupeni Baba (FAP), of the Department of Education in the School of Humanities, Senior Lecturer of Economics Dr. Ganeshwar Chand (FLP), Dr. Isimeli Cokanasiga (FAP) of the Institute of Education, and Professor Asesela Ravuvu (CDA) of the Institute of Pacific Studies.

Besides the participation of academics, the political cross-fire is becoming more and more charged as the voting date nears. However, one has to evaluate Fiji’s political and constitutional developments from 1987 to 1999 in order to provide a reasonable explanation to the state of political affairs there.

There is undoubtedly a of lot acrimony between the National Federation Party and the Fiji Labour Party. Both parties were united from 1986 up until 1991 when the National Federation Party decided to leave the coalition and contest the 1992 general elections.

More importantly, perhaps, is the differences between the leaders of the NFP and the FLP. These differences were put aside in 1994, following threats of a third coup by Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka. Unfortunately, the constitution review process again soured relations between the two.

Despite giving a joint submission to the Constitution Review Commission (CRC), the National Federation Party adopted a more conciliatory approach to the multiparty negotiations on a constitutional compromise, while the Fiji Labour Party insisted on the full implementation of the CRC Report.

For the Fiji Labour Party leader Mahendra Chaudhry, 46 communal representation, enshrined in the 1997 Constitution, is a step backwards. Instead, Chaudhry believes in more national seats, which in time will create cross-cultural understanding. On the other hand, the leader of the National Federation Party believes in a flexible approach that saw the retention of a large portion of communal seats and the subsequent shrinking of national or common-roll seats.

For Reddy, the best approach, for the moment, is to work with the government in addressing some of the urgent issues like Agricultural Landlord and Tenants Act, economic growth and public sector reforms. Not so according to the FLP which insists that a successive legislation is needed to address ALTA and a halt to a recent wave of privatization.

Apart from struggle between the FLP and the NFP, the Christian Democratic Alliance is turning out to be a real thorn in the side of the SVT. It must be noted that members of the CDA were staunch SVT supporters, who now disappointed with the government for abandoning its "pro-Fijian" policies, which evolved through trial and error since 1987.

More important, perhaps, is the party’s view on Sunday observance and on assisting grassroot Fijians. The relentless attack by the CDA on SVT’s performance is undoubtedly having an impact. To counter such attacks, the SVT has chosen to remind Fijians that it still commands the support of the chiefs. Unfortunately, this is far from the reality. The chiefs are more divided than before.

It is noted that there are chiefs that support Party of National Unity, Fijian Association, Christian Democratic Alliance, and Fijian Nationalist Party. It is turning out to be an interesting three-tier battle among Fijian Association/PANU, Christian Democratic Alliance and the SVT. Not to mention, the ability of the Nationalists to wisk away a couple of seats. Twelve years since the coup, the Fijians remain divided as ever and disillusionment with the major political parties seem to be a root cause of this predictable development.

In the end, I hope that after the elections, a number of coalition parties can get the required number to form a stable government. Failing that, Fiji will once again fall into an abyss of uncertainty and political chaos. Not to mention, the political in-fighting that will emerge as a result and the possible wider implications on a seriously troubled economy and the weary public.

April 26, 1999

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