ILOILO ADMINISTRATION ANOTHER MISSED OPPORTUNITY FOR FIJI

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By Debbie Singh

SUVA, Fiji Islands (March 20, 2001 – Asia Times Online/Inter Press Service)---Fiji has once again taken its one-step-forward, 10-steps-backward approach to governance, with last week's reappointment of a military-installed government deemed illegal by the courts just two weeks ago.

The controversial reappointment effectively circumvented that court decision, and critics say it shows a blatant disregard for the rule of law and any step toward democracy following last year's coup against the elected government of this South Pacific island nation.

On March 16, Fiji President Ratu Josefa Iloilo swore in as caretaker Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, the same man who led a military-installed government put in place after the May 2000 coup that ousted the country's first Indo-Fijian government. The move left much of this country of 700,000 people open-mouthed in indignation, with legal sources claiming it was an act "more outrageous than anything done in the past" and in effect a power-grab.

At least one non-governmental organization, the Citizens Constitutional Forum (CCF), has begun preparations to seek an injunction in the Suva High Court against the "illegal appointment" of Qarase and his appointment of a cabinet last week.

The legal roundabout is the latest twist in a series of events triggered by the Court of Appeals ruling two weeks ago, which declared the abrogated 1997 constitution and the interim Qarase government illegal. That constitution, which enshrined multi-ethnic participation in Fiji's political life and society, was abrogated after the May coup that was launched by a group of ethnic Fijians that said they did so on behalf of all ethnic Fijians. This same group called for indigenous Fijian political leadership in ousting the elected government of Indo-Fijian Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, highlighting racial tensions here.

More than half the population is indigenous Fijian and some 45 percent of Fijians are of Indian descent, descendants of indentured laborers brought by British colonizers to work in the sugarcane plantations.

The Court of Appeals also declared Fiji's interim administration illegal, because it did not have "the acquiescence of the majority of the people" to govern the country.

The Citizens Constitutional Forum also plans to question the sacking last week by Iloilo of Chaudhry, who has not resigned his post after being deposed last year. Iloilo sacked him in order to pave the way for the reappointment of Qarase. But Iloilo justified his action by saying he was acting according to the 1997 constitution, although critics say he was interpreting it to suit his own ends.

Iloilo appointed a prime minister for 24 hours, then this appointee agreed to hand in his resignation, allowing Iloilo to swear in Qarase and his cabinet as the country's "new" caretaker government. Now that the interim government adjudged illegal is back in power, where these events leave the country is anybody's guess.

There is immense disappointment and indignation at what legal experts and activists call a misinterpretation of the country's constitution to suit the interests of an appointed few. "The events of the past week illustrate that there are a few people who do not want to relinquish power and who want to manipulate court decisions," Jone Dkuvula of the CCF said. "But the courts are still functioning and are still the best avenue in which to challenge things."

Suva lawyer Richard Naidu said of the events of the past week: "It will definitely go to court and the courts will strike it down. Those in power will need to listen to the courts this time. We had an opportunity to get it right and as soon as a serious court told the government what to do, they went ahead and defied it."

Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Chaudhry has called the president's actions "badly advised and unlawful," saying that there was a "great deal of bungling and this was left everyone confused," adding, "At this time, it is vital for the president to demonstrate to the nation the importance of governing within the law."

In the first international reaction to events in Fiji, New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff said Fiji had "lost the opportunity to get things back on track" with the reappointment of the Qarase government.

The CCF has also asked the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, local diplomatic corps and overseas foreign ministries to treat the caretaker government as illegal and unacceptable to the Commonwealth and international community.

But Iloilo refuted the Appeals Court's ruling that the Qarase interim government did not have majority support. He said it had the backing of the Great Council of Chiefs, Fiji's traditional leaders, which he said represented the majority of the people.

Susana Evening of the Catholic Women's League said the country's leaders were unstable and unable to make their own decisions, relying on misguided advice and propaganda that fuelled racial divisions. "A government of national unity should have been encouraged, although ideally the elected government should have been reinstated," she added.

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