By Victor Lal

SUVA, Fiji (Fiji Sun, May 23) – In another country, the Leader of the Opposition after loosing a parliamentary election for the second time in his political career might have gracefully stepped down.

Even if the leader lost with a razor-thin minority, it is never prudent for him to cling on to the leadership.

Such a practice is disdainfully frowned upon in most democratic systems, except in Africa, where dictatorial leaders hold on to party leadership in the hope of capturing power at the next election.

On the other hand, if the twice-defeated party leader in a western-style democracy refuses to relinquish control, he is humiliatingly forced out of the Opposition office through a ‘palace coup’ by one or some of his colleagues, supporters, or by a potential challenger.

Why should the Fiji Labor Party change its leader? Firstly, Mahendra Pal Chaudhry had his chance in 2001, and now again in the 2006 general election, to wrest political control of the nation from the Laisenia Qarase-led SDL party, but has failed.

This should be sufficient ground for him to take a parliamentary back seat, and let another Fiji Labor Party parliamentarian take the helm.

As his deputy Poseci Bune indicated during the campaign, there are parliamentarians in the party who have the clout and the experience to even become Prime Minister.

Secondly, I still believe that it was a strategic blunder on the part of Mr. Chaudhry to have boycotted Parliament for a long spell over the issue of the allocation of Cabinet portfolios following the 2001 elections.

I pleaded with him to be visibly and vocally present in Parliament while continuing to pursue his legal case but it was to no avail. After all, his new found coalition partner Mick Beddoes, had stepped in and did a sterling job as Opposition leader.

Mr. Chaudhry’s entire political posture on the land issue, despite his genuine concern for the Indo-Fijian tenant farmers, was a potential vote loser among the Fijian voters.

It would be no exaggeration to suggest that its Coalition partner [Party of National Unity] PANU felt the full brunt of the Fiji Labor Party’s posturing on the land question at the ballot box.

The SDL was able to privately persuade the Fijian voters that PANU would not hesitate to ‘sell’ the landowners in a post Chaudhry-led government.

What other explanation can be put forward to explain why PANU was trounced in its own backyard in Ba and other western constituencies?

Cynics will attribute it to the politics of preference sharing and the electoral system.

Thirdly, despite being frequently described as a wily and cunning old political fox and one of the shrewdest of political operators in the country, I think Mr. Chaudhry miserably failed to take the Fijian pulse and gauge the political tempo of the 2006 election.

I was surprised that, having secured the Indo-Fijian communal seats through last-minute deals with the National Federation Party, he again popped up in the midst of electioneering to explain the alleged frauds and malpractices in terms of race i.e. that there was a sinister plot to disenfranchise the Indo-Fijian voters.

In the minds of many Fijian voters, he stamped an image of being a closet ‘Indo-Fijian nationalist and racist’, a charge that was frequently hurled at his political opponent and rival, Mr. Qarase.

In view of the dramatic shift in population where Fijians are now a majority race in the country, it is very important for any non-Fijian political leader to pitch at the Fijian voters, even if it means ‘betraying’ a part of the Indo-Fijian constituents. Elections, after all, are about winning, and Mr. Qarase played his cards very cleverly and strategically.

For example, once he forcefully made the point that Fiji was still not ready for an Indo-Fijian Prime Minister, his view, even if it was construed as racist, was relegated to the political backburner.

Mr. Chaudhry did not have the same fall back opportunity. He still needed the Fijian voters to make up the winning numbers.

Worse, by speaking the counterfeit sudh (standard) Hindi, the Fiji Labor Party failed to reach the 30 per cent of Fijians who speak Fiji Hindi.

These are just some of the reasons why I personally think it is time for Mr. Chaudhry to honorably relinquish the party leadership.

And if he refuses to go, well, it is up to those parliamentarians with clout and experience to become the next Prime Minister to come out of his political shadow.

Leaders and supporters come and go but the party has a life of its own.

There is nothing stopping Mr Chaudhry from becoming the elder statesman of the party that he helped found in 1985 with many visionary and multi-racialist Fijians.

The Fiji Labour Party blunderingly placed all its political eggs in one basket: it calculated that if it won at least 30 seats, and PANU and UPP their share of seats, it would go on to form the next government.

It was also hoping that the leader of the National Alliance Party, Ratu Epeli Ganilau, was going to win his seat until the NFP disclosed its preference against the paramount chief.

It also seems likely that the Fiji Labor Party had expected that Commodore Frank Bainimarama’s frightening and threatening statements might just persuade a sufficient number of Fijian voters to swing the results in the Fiji Labor Party-UPP-PANU’s favour.

I had thought otherwise, that the Commodore’s intervention in politics would backfire on the Fiji Labor Party.

Why does the Fiji Labor Party need a new leader? There are other indisputable reasons.

This was the last general election where race really mattered. In 2011 the Fijians will be the majority of the voters, and fully groomed in democratic politics. For this reason, the Fiji Labour Party will have to broaden its outlook, and cannot rely on Indo-Fijian voters in the Open seats to win future elections.

It will need a leader who has a ‘clean slate’ and preferably speaks the Fijian language (there are many Indo-Fijian parliamentarians who are fluent in Fijian).

It must also stop clinging to the politics of land to win votes.

I also think the NAP should spend the next five years building up a multi-racial platform, and if need be, replace the Fiji Labour Party as a truly genuine multi-racial party.

Over the years, Fijians from outer islands and other areas of Fiji have migrated to these areas, and the SDL ‘secret agents’ had done preparatory election homework by routinely attending funerals, church meetings, weddings, solis etc, and were able to exploit demography and democracy to their electoral advantage.

Most commentators, including the Fiji Labour Party, were too busy concentrating on the displaced farmers from Labasa, while some parties were exploiting their misery for political purposes.

When his own political obituary is written one day, Mr Chaudhry’s Fijian political rivals will sorely miss him: his towering and controversial presence on the political stage has so far welded the taukei Fijians into one political unit.

His presence has suppressed the politics of tribalism and regionalism so rampant on the continent of Africa, where their own ‘Chief Lutunasobasobas’, after expelling or marginalising the Asians (Indians) in their midst, are tearing their countries apart as they vie for political, economic, and military supremacy.

The Fiji Labor Party needs a complete political makeover if it is to win the next general election.

It needs to attract significant taukei Fijian political ‘kai vatas’ of its own to achieve that goal.

And the Indo-Fijian farmers will have to realise that in the rapidly changing demography they, and not their political representatives, will ultimately pay a price if they leave the decision on the land question in the hands of their new chosen Fiji Labour Party Members of Parliament.

The taukei Fijian landowners magnanimity and patience will finally run out on the politics of land leasing.

And any new Fiji Labor Party leader must begin his leadership on that cautionary note.

Victor Lal is the author of "Fiji: Coups in Paradise-Race, Politics and Military Intervention," and is completing a commissioned Historical Dictionary of Fiji for publication. He read law and international relations and politics at the University of Oxford in the 1980s, where he specializes in race, politics, conflict and constitutionalism in multi-ethnic states.]

May 23, 2006


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