FIJI ELECTIONS OF AUGUST 2001

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VIEWPOINT

September 11, 2001

By Sanjay Ramesh, Ph.D.

Fiji citizens went to the polls in August for the second time in just over 24 months to elect members to Fiji’s Parliament, which was the scene of a 56-day hostage drama from 19 May to 14 July 2000. The illegal hijacking of a democratically elected government by self-styled champions of indigenous rights George Speight and his henchmen incapacitated the Chaudhry Government and forced the President of Fiji, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara to flee to safety. In addition to that, indigenous Fijian village thugs attacked Indo-Fijians in rural areas and the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC) split into various provincial factions. Moreover, the security arm of the state -- the police and the army -- was also divided and a "band aid" solution was imposed on Fiji in the form of an interim administration. As the administration consolidated power, George Speight and his core companions were incarcerated at a makeshift prison on Nukulau Island, which was a quarantine station for Indian indentured laborers, who were brought to Fiji by the British colonial authorities from 1879 to 1916.

Despite installing a 99 percent indigenous Fijian administration, a group within the Fiji Military Forces mutinied on 2 November 2000, and an Indo-Fijian refugee, Chandrika Prasad, challenged the new military installed and GCC backed political order in the Lautoka High Court. On 15 November 2000, Justice Anthony Gates adjudicated that the interim government was illegal and that the 1997 Constitution was still the supreme law of Fiji. As anticipated, the interim government appealed the judgment on the grounds of "necessity," arguing that the administration was in "effective control." However, that argument was squashed by the full bench of the Fiji Court of Appeal on 1 March 2001, and the interim administration along with its GCC were compelled to agree to snap general elections.

A flurry of political parties sprang up, following official announcement that Fiji would go to the polls from 25 August to 1 September 2001. The interim Prime Minister, Laisenia Qarase, formed the Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua or United Fiji Party to unite indigenous Fijians, according to the wishes of the Great Council of Chiefs. The Fiji Labour Party (FLP) engaged in a bitter leadership debate with former Deputy Prime Minister Dr. Tupeni Baba, who broke away and formed the New Labour Unity Party (NLUP). In Ba Province, Apisai Tora spearheaded the formation of the Bai Kei Viti (BKV) party and former members of the Soqosoqo ni Vakevulew ni Taukei (SVT) and key supporters of the 19 May takeover formed the Matanitu Vanua (MV) or Conservative Alliance Party. Among the candidates for the Conservatives were coup leader George Speight and his ally Ratu Timoci Silatolu (Prime Minister in the Speight installed Taukei Civilian Government). Other parties contesting the elections were the Fijian Association Party, Party of National Unity, General Voters Party, General Electors, National Federation Party, Girmit Heritage Party, Justice and Freedom Party, and Dodonu ni Taukei Party.

Under the 1997 Constitution, political parties campaigned for 71 seats in the House of Representatives, out of which 19 are Indo-Fijian communal seats, 23 indigenous Fijian communal seats, 3 General Voter seats, 1 for Rotuma and 25 common roll seats. As expected, the political campaign was polarized along racial lines with a texture of intra-communal squabbles. The SDL argued for indigenous Fijian political unity and paramountcy of indigenous Fijian interest, whereas Matanitu Vanua highlighted the plight of those on Nukulau and of average indigenous Fijian. The New Labour Unity Party, the SVT, National Federation Party and Fijian Association Party formed the "moderate" group, arguing in favour of peaceful co-existence of Indo-Fijians and indigenous Fijians under the 1997 Constitution.

The Fiji Labour Party accused the SDL of vote buying after it was revealed that farm equipment was readily dispensed to secure political support. Other parties, including Matanitu Vanua and SVT, also accused the SDL of official abuse. For the Indo-Fijians, the focus was the 1997 Constitution and land leases. Chaudhry made "respect" and "dignity" a centrepiece of his election campaign, and was undeterred by a threatening pamphlet, which warned of further instability. The National Federation Party, in contrast, failed to provide clear direction and leadership, despite putting forward an impressive manifesto and electing a new leader, Attar Singh, and deputy Dorsami Naidu. Furthermore, the NFP alienated Indo-Fijian voters by putting Labour last on its preference list. Not only NFP, but SDL, Matanitu Vanua, and Bai Kei Viti put Labour last.

There were some 201 candidates for communal and 150 for open seats. Voting started on 25 August and long queues at polling stations prompted the Elections Office to engage more human and computer resources to rectify the situation. The United Nations and Commonwealth sent its observers to oversee the elections and there was tight security with police and the army ready to apprehend troublemakers. Following the end of voting on Saturday 1 September, counting began in the evening of 3 September. Initially, the Fiji Labour Party showed a strong performance by capturing all Indo-Fijian seats and 8 open seats. Afterwards, it was stuck with 27 seats. SDL polled strongly in all indigenous Fijian communal seats and was neck in neck with Labour up to Wednesday 5 September when it sped ahead with 18 indigenous Fijian communal seats and bagged 12 open seats by the end of count on Friday 7 September. The Matanitu Vanua party created a sensation when its candidate, Nukulau prisoner George Speight, won the Tailevu seat on Wednesday. Not only that but Matanitu Vanua won 5 communal and one open seat, capturing some 25% of total indigenous Fijian votes. The SVT, NFP, PANU, Bai Kei Viti and other smaller parties like Girmit Heritage and Freedom and Justice parties failed to win any seats. The leader of the New Labour Party Tupeni Baba lost his seat while his party won 2 seats - 1 General and 1 open seat. At the end of the day, there were 2 independents, 1 NFP (Nadi Open seat), 27 FLP, 6 MV, and 31 SDL.

Immediately following the results, both the FLP and SVT accused the SDL of vote rigging and other dubious practices. Clearly, the results indicated that all if not most SVT support moved to the SDL. Apisai Tora's stunt with Bai Kei Viti came to an abrupt end with more than 60% of indigenous Fijians voters comfortable with the Qarase’s interim administration. The Matanitu Vanua Party polled very well in Vanua Levu and in Tailevu, capturing 25% of total indigenous Fijian votes. Indo-Fijians were solidly behind the FLP (75%) while urban Indo-Fijians supported NFP (14%) and SDL (6%). At the end of the count, none of the parties had an outright majority and Qarase needed to either invite MV or make arrangements with NFP, NLUP, UGP, and 2 independents.

Frantic meetings continued among parties on Saturday 8 September 2001 as talks between the SDL and MV stalled over amnesty for Speight and his group. In a surprise turn of events, the FLP also held talks with MV. Meanwhile, the SDL secured support from the two independents and had successfully roped in the 2 members from the New Labour Unity Party. The National Federation Party remained undecided over a coalition with the SDL. While the final agreement was being ironed out among political parties, Laisenia Qarase was sworn in as the Prime Minister of Fiji on Monday 10 September. But under the 1997 Constitution, Qarase had an obligation to invite parties with more than 10% of total seats in the House to join cabinet. With much reluctance, Qarase wrote to Chaudhry outlining to him the difficulties his government would face if Chaudhry accepted his offer. As it turned out, the Fiji Labour Party decided to join the government thus creating further confusion for Qarase.

The main problem between the SDL and FLP is that one is totally absorbed in promoting indigenous Fijian supremacy whereas the other is more concerned with social justice and an equitable solution to the land lease problems. At the height of the elections, the Constitution Review Report was leaked to the media. In it, it was argued with some trepidation that indigenous Fijian and Indo-Fijian interests are diametrically opposed, and that political empowerment of one would mean systematic disempowerment of the other. This zero-sum analysis, enhanced mainly by indigenous Fijian leaders, has contributed to the deterioration of race relations in Fiji. Indigenous Fijian leaders have not only suggested destroying the 1997 Constitution but deliberately breaking up Indo-Fijians into intracommunal groups.

The failure of "moderate" political groups in enticing voters is tragic and exemplifies the level of racial consciousness prevalent among the majority in Fiji. Furthermore, communal feeling is greatly elevated during political crises in Fiji and ideas such as "we support the cause and not the method," "Fiji for Fijian," "Fijian unity", and anti-Indo-Fijian propaganda generally are used to mobilize indigenous Fijians against Indo-Fijians. It is also used to gloss over intra communal or inter provincial rivalry. The tragedy of such social engineering is ongoing division and suspicion between Fiji’s two major communities.

Comments to be emailed to sanjay_ramesh@yahoo.com.au 

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