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Radio Australia AsiaPacific Melbourne, Australia July 30, 2001

In a staggered electoral process, the people of Fiji will begin to cast their votes over two weeks beginning August 25. The election will be held under the 1997 multi-racial constitution, but according to some analysts, the constitution itself is responsible for many of the divisions in society.

Presenter/Interviewer: James Panichi

Speakers: Scott MacWilliam, University of the South Pacific; Dr. Brij Lal, Australian National University

Panichi: Dr. Brij Lal was one of the three framers of that constitution, and he believes Fiji should have gone much further in its move toward liberal democracy.

Lal: "Well, there is no such thing as a perfect, or an ideal democracy. An electoral system is designed to suit the needs of a particular country.

Now, in the case of Fiji, 46 of the 71 seats are reserved for different ethnic groups: 23 for Fijians, 19 for Indo-Fijians and 3 for people who are neither Fijians nor Indo-Fijians. And this is what the people themselves wanted because, you see, under the 1990 constitution all the seats were racially reserved. And so, this was a move away from that kind of electoral apartheid towards a more open system.

The commission, of which I was a member, recommended that 45 of the 71 seats should be open seats, with absolutely no reservation on the grounds of ethnicity for candidates or voters. Now, the parliamentarians decided otherwise.

My own view is that it is counter productive, it is detrimental to nation-building, because race-based constituencies accentuate racial feelings, and in a multi-ethnic society, that is counter productive."

Panichi: So, while the communal seats hark back to the divisions of the 1970 and 1990 constitutions, the 25 so-called "open seats" were designed to foster the creation of multi-ethnic parties.

The use of the alternative, or preferential, voting system was also introduced to enhance dialogue between political parties, who must now negotiate with one another in order to attract preferences in both the communal and open seats.

Finally, an executive power-sharing arrangement was also created, designed to foster consultation by requiring that representatives of all major parties be included in the cabinet.

Yet, to date, the political discourse has largely centered around the same notions of race, which led to last year’s coup.

Scott MacWilliam, a politics associate professor at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, says that while the 1997 constitution is partly to blame for the failure to promote a racially blind political reality, many party leaders have failed to understand the social complexity of the new Fiji.

MacWilliam: "The ‘99 election result was, as I’ve said before, was one of the sharpest class votes that I’ve ever seen.

"The government of Mr. Rabuka and his political ally in the National Federation Party was thrown out primarily because of increasingly unemployment, impoverishment, the privatization, corruption and all of those types of issues.

The large sections of working people -- going right across from rural areas to urban areas, whether they were ethnic Fijians or Indo-Fijians --voted against that government for those reasons. They didn’t largely vote against the government on what I’d call racial grounds."

Panichi: So why have the parties, with a few exceptions, been reluctant to accept the challenge of the open electorates which require them to appeal to a wider section of society?

While Dr. Lal believes the constitution allows for too many communal seats, he also believes that, in spite of appearances, Fiji IS moving toward a more liberal form of democracy.

But this process is also being hampered by the legacy of Fiji’s race-based constitutional history."

Lal: "After the coups of 1987, different political parties were gradually coming together and realizing that coups don’t solve problems, they compound them. And the fact that they were able to work together, to shepherd through Parliament a multiracial constitution, was a major achievement.

"And I think people were basking in the glory of that achievement prior to 1999."

© ABC AsiaPacific (first broadcast, Monday 30 July 2001)

Title -- 3304 POLITICS: Constitution blamed for divisions in Fiji society Date -- 2 August 2001 Byline -- James Panichi Origin -- Pasifik Nius Source -- ABC’s AsiaPacific broadcast, 30/7/1 Copyright -- DP Status – Unabridged

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