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SUVA, Fiji Islands (August 20, 2002 – Daily Post)---Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase feels Fijians are more comfortable with ethnic-based voting under which they can choose candidates from their own community or province.

He agreed this might not be consistent with the politically correct precepts of democracy but argued it fit in within a Fijian concept of communal democracy.

"This draws its strength from the indigenous emphasis on group activity within a hierarchical social structure led by chiefs," Mr. Qarase said.

"The chiefs represent continuity, tradition, social order and unity. The chiefs and the people are one. Group rights, in this content, tend to be more important than individual rights."

He pointed out colonial rulers and missionaries understood this and they worked successfully with the system rather than against it.

Mr. Qarase said the influence of Fijian chiefs continued to be a stabilizing element in Fiji.

"When our Constitution became useless as a defense against anarchy in 2000, it was the Great Council of Chiefs which moved into the vacuum and became a source of national authority.

"It was the GCC which set us on course for a return to parliamentary rule. Continued support of the Government by the chiefs has been a crucial element in our rapid recovery from 2000."

Mr. Qarase said to a Western liberal democrat, Fiji’s chiefly system was a throwback to feudalism and, from this viewpoint, was anachronistic and autocratic.

"How often do we hear the view that chiefs are unelected and do not represent the people? This thinking would prefer that the chiefs were reduced to political irrelevance in the interest of equality, civil liberties and democratic rights," he said.

"These arguments are unconvincing to many Fijians. They believe chiefs have legitimate customary power. The chiefs and the people are inextricably bound to each other, to their land and to the vanua. They are of the very basis of our collective identity and culture."

He added the chiefs were not only indispensable to Fijians but were essential for Fiji.

"Remove them or reduce their role and that would be the end of a time-tested model of authority, fundamental to the cultural well being of Fijians," Mr. Qarase said.

He said the challenge was for Fiji to fully evolve a form of governance, a method of democracy, which carefully blended customary ways and traditions with the Western democratic ideal.

"Even now within Fiji and certainly among some observers overseas, there’s a view that Western liberal democracy can cure Fiji’s political ills," Mr. Qarase said.

"This dangerous delusion revolves around the notion that we are all the same. We should ignore the differences, just concentrate on issues, identify common interests and press on. I say again that this is dangerous thinking. It has led us previously into disaster."

For additional reports from Fiji’s Daily Post, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Other News Resources/FijiLive.

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