FIJI PM QARASE ORDERED TO OPEN UP CABINET TO OPPOSITION

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By Robert Keith-Reid

SUVA, Fiji Islands (April 25, 2002 – The Age/AP)---A High Court judge yesterday ordered Fiji's government to include up to eight parliamentarians from the opposition in the Cabinet -- something the Prime Minister has refused to do.

The nationalist government of Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase said before the ruling that it would appeal against any order to include Labour parliamentarians in the Cabinet.

Mr. Qarase won elections last year -- the first since the Labour-led government of Mahendra Chaudhry was ousted in a May 19, 2000, armed coup -- and appointed a Cabinet of 19 ethnic Fijian ministers, one part-Fijian and one ethnic Indian representative.

Labour launched legal action saying Mr. Qarase's decision to shut it out of government was unconstitutional.

Mr. Chaudhry was toppled by indigenous Fijians who said they wanted to rein in the influence of ethnic Indians. A former union leader, Mr. Chaudhry was the South Pacific nation's first ethnic Indian prime minister.

Ethnic Indians make up about 45 percent of Fiji's 820,000 population but control much of the political and economic life of the nation. Indigenous Fijians make up just over half the population.

Although Mr. Qarase won the most seats in Fiji's 71-seat Parliament during last year's elections, according to the country's constitution, the Labour share of the vote entitled Mr. Chaudhry's party to eight Cabinet posts.

Mr. Qarase initially offered Labour seats, but then said his nationalist party could not sit with Labour in the same government because Labour did not agree with his nationalist agenda.

The Prime Minister can appeal against yesterday's ruling to Fiji's Supreme Court.

In his ruling, High Court judge Anthony Gates also ordered the government to pay F$ 20,000 Fiji dollars (US$ 8,896) of Labour's court costs.

Mr. Chaudhry said he was willing to discuss Cabinet posts with Mr. Qarase.

"The country has been waiting long enough for this," he said. "The constitution is very explicit . . . The courts have decided. I think it's time he sat down with us, the Labour Party, and discuss this matter in a rational way and see where we can go from here."

Mr. Qarase did not immediately comment on the decision.

The May 2000, coup sent Fiji into an economic tailspin from which it is only now beginning to recover. George Speight, the businessman who led the coup, is serving a life sentence after pleading guilty earlier this year to treason.

For additional reports from The Age, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The Age.

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