Asia-Pacific

Fiji Goes to the Poll

Earlier in his election campaign, Fijian Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase argued that an Indo-Fijian leader could not effectively address indigenous concerns. Racial tension is likely to dominate the eight-day-long poll. (Photo: Dean Treml / AFP-Getty Images)

Voters on Fiji's 300-odd islands go to the polls on Saturday in an eight-day general election despite the political uncertainty that remains over the South Pacific nation's future. The uncertainty is largely caused by the fallout between the military and the ruling Soqosoqo ni Duavata ni Lewenivanua (S.D.L.) party and lack of progress as well as an initiative by S.D.L. to "accommodate" ethnic diversity within an effective multicultural party policy. So far S.D.L. has paid lip service to multiracial democracy and do not have any policy balance on majority-minority aspirations. However, there are notable exceptions, the National Alliance Party of Fiji, United Peoples' Party, Party of National Unity, Fiji Labor Party and the National Federation Party, have adopted policies that integrates conflicting aspirations of Fiji's diverse communities.

On Jan. 12, there was an attempted mutiny by a small group of senior officers, who were unhappy with the ongoing tensions between the government and the military since the elections of August 2001. The military has continuously expressed concern over the manner in which the government intervened following the coup-related convictions of S.D.L. supporters and government ministers. Concerned that many of its supporters may end up in prison, the government announced in June last year the Racial Tolerance and Unity Bill (R.T.U.), which provided above all an "amnesty" to individuals implicated in the coup of May 2000.

Allegations of Vote Buying

Fiji's police commissioner, Andrew Hughes, stated that over 2000 people have been interviewed by investigators in relation to coup related offences (Fiji Village News, Jan. 6), and that seven individuals, six companies and one organization were implicated in allegations as financiers of the May 19 takeover. The police are involved in two sets of investigations — one dealing with the illegal takeover of the government and the other with a pre-2001 election agricultural scam involving farm equipment that was distributed to indigenous Fijians.

An audit of the agricultural program in 2001 revealed a discrepancy of more than $16 million and as a result, the program was suspended by the Ministry of Finance. A letter to Interim Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, dated Aug. 8, 2001, Energy Minister Joketani Cokanisiga expressed disappointment at the suspension of the agricultural scheme (Fiji Sun, Jan. 20). According to the Fiji Labor Party (F.L.P.), the agricultural scam was deliberate and aimed at "buying votes" for the newly established S.D.L.

The F.L.P.'s deputy leader, Poseci Bune, accused S.D.L. on Nov. 23 of yet another agricultural scheme type scandal. According to Bune, Safeway Marine and Rabitech, a company based in Lami, was contracted by the Ministry of Fisheries to build 90 fiberglass boats that were to be distributed before August 2006 (Fiji Times, Nov. 24). The government rejected the notion that the boat scheme was another "vote buying" strategy by S.D.L. However, Prime Minister Qarase did admit on Nov. 23 that he paid a relative to secure a boat as part of the Ministry of Fisheries affirmative action program for indigenous Fijians.

The year 2006 started with speculation that the ongoing tension between the military and the government could lead to an early poll. This would be the eighth general election following independence from Britain on Oct. 10, 1970. Two of these elections (1987 and 1999) resulted in multiethnic governments, which prompted indigenous nationalists to engineer a coup so that indigenous Fijians had total monopoly on political power.

Preparing for Elections

Following the August 2001 elections, Fiji was back to the good old days of the post 1987 coup, when indigenous Fijians exclusively formed the government and Indo-Fijians were relegated to the opposition bench.

The indigenous Fijian S.D.L. party was formed to achieve two political ends: first, to implement affirmative action programs for indigenous Fijians as a form of "appeasement" of indigenous nationalists, and second, to ensure that the Fiji Labor Party and Indo-Fijians did not win control of the government. Unlike the 2001 general elections, the 2006 elections saw the rise of the multiracial National Alliance Party of Fiji.

National Alliance Party of Fiji (N.A.P.F.)

The N.A.P.F., led by former military commander, Ratu Epeli Ganilau, challenged the affirmative action policies of S.D.L. and provided the following policy options:

  • Expanding the economy and attracting investment to develop natural resources fully.
  • Restoring dignity and self-esteem through job creation.
  • Improving living conditions.
  • Providing citizens with opportunities, prospects and employment.
  • Eradicating poverty.
  • Providing affirmative action on the basis of need.
  • Improving race relations and eradicating racism.
  • Removing all forms of unfair discrimination.
  • Ensuring equality before the law.

(Fiji Sun, Feb. 2)

Furthermore, the party has made education an important element in their election campaign. The N.A.P.F. believes education is a basic human right as opposed to S.D.L., which discriminates against minority communities by providing a disproportionately larger share of education resources to indigenous Fijians only. The N.A.P.F., unlike S.D.L., aims to establish a functional public education system where the state will be responsible for minimum standards for school buildings and teaching facilities. Unlike any other political party in Fiji, the N.A.P.F. will actively promote and finance cultural education, including the teaching of vernacular languages.

Soqosoqo ni Duavata ni Lewenivanua (S.D.L.)

The S.D.L. party was formed by chiefs, members of the interim government and influential players from indigenous business circles who wanted an exclusively indigenous government. S.D.L.'s achievement was the Social Justice Act, which was enacted by the parliament on Dec. 21, 2001. Since then the act has come under criticism from various quarters both inside and outside Fiji.

The government published a report on affirmative action programs for indigenous Fijians and Rotumans in which it called issues of race and affirmative action a reality given the country's ethnic divisions. "… [This] cannot and should not be overlooked. Fiji will only resolve its racial differences by dealing with them honestly and openly and removing the inequities and inequalities, which cause social and political tensions. This does not mean that the policies enacted to achieve this are racist. They should be seen in the wider context of development to improve the standards of living of all disadvantaged groups."

Obviously, S.D.L. is interested only in providing social justice to indigenous Fijians. On one hand it is implementing social justice for indigenous Fijians while perpetrating social injustice against other communities, including Indo-Fijians. Currently, there are 29 affirmative action programs for indigenous Fijians and Rotumans and out of these 19 are supposed to benefit members of minority communities. Only two of them are of any benefit to the Indo-Fijian community.

While the government has used U.N. Declaration on Indigenous Peoples, and Human and Political Rights Conventions to justify its position, it has conveniently ignored the Declaration on the Rights of Persons belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, adopted by the General Assembly on Dec. 18, 1992. The 1992 declaration among other things disallows state policies that keep minorities from preserving and promoting their own identity and culture.

The problem is that S.D.L.'s very own policy on affirmative action disproportionately under-funds programs of other minority communities because the identified programs for indigenous Fijians and Rotumans are given budgetary priority. In areas such as education, the affirmative action outcomes are not transparent at all and this has an impact on governance and the transparency of the political process.

On Feb. 17, the Conservative Alliance Matanitu Vanua (C.A.M.V.) formally amalgamated with S.D.L.; in its new look manifesto, the party declared that it was a multiracial party (Fiji Sun, Mar. 6). However, the party policy remained firmly geared towards affirmative action for indigenous Fijians. Among a list of achievements, S.D.L. took credit for:

  • Removing value-added tax from basic consumer items.
  • Reducing bus fares for senior citizens.
  • Removing import duties from outboard motors.
  • Increasing the funding for the destitute and needy.
  • Implementing price controls on basic consumer items.
  • Creating a farming assistance scheme for rural dwellers.
  • Providing tuition fees assistance for Forms 5, 6 and 7.
  • Providing multiethnic scholarships for the Indian and minority community.

S.D.L. moved quickly to invite aspiring Indo-Fijian candidates for the May elections. However, it faced dissension among its ranks in provinces of Rewa, Kadavu and Tailevu. Dissident members of the C.A.M.V. formed their own group, the Coalition of Independent Conservatives (C.O.I.C.), as an expression of unhappiness over the decision to dissolve the C.A.M.V.

Fiji Labor Party (F.L.P.)

The F.L.P. remains a formidable political force in the country's politics. The party's leader, Mahendra Chaudhry, a former prime minister who was held hostage for 56 days when nationalist gunmen stormed the parliament in 2000, has remained steadfast in his resolve to fight for the "dignity" of Indo-Fijians.

For the past five years, Chaudhry has taken S.D.L. to task at every possible opportunity. Clearly S.D.L. erred in its judgment when it failed to honor Section 99 of the 1997 Constitution that calls for a multiparty government based on participation in the cabinet of parties with10 percent or more seats in the House of Representatives. After a lengthy court battle, S.D.L. gave the F.L.P. only token positions, citing incompatibility between the policies of the two parties.

Next, the F.L.P. rejected S.D.L.'s proposal for bringing sugar leases under the Native Land Trust Act (N.L.T.A.) and boycotted the Parliamentary Committee on Sugar, following the release of the Racial Tolerance and Unity Bill (R.T.U.) (The Sunday Times, May 15, 2005). The F.L.P. became an ally of the military in vigorously opposing the bill and Chaudhry vowed that the bill would "not see the light of day" (Fijilive, July 5, 2005).

Labor released its election manifesto in Nadi on April 8:

  • Fight corruption.
  • Institute good governance.
  • Restore confidence in the economy.
  • Poverty alleviation.
  • Expand agriculture and the sustainable development of natural resources.
  • Create jobs.
  • Invest in technical and vocational education.
  • Dismantle monopolies to encourage competition.
  • Control bank fees and charges.
  • Revitalize the sugar and garment industries.
  • Invest in infrastructure.
  • Create a national health scheme.
  • Provide fee free education to all Form 7 students.
  • Enact Freedom of Information.
  • Give the police the resources to fight crime.
  • Make available special funds for landowners to participate in land development.

The F.L.P. has teamed up with the United Peoples' Party (U.P.P.) and the Party of National Unity (P.A.N.U.). The U.P.P.'s party president, Mick Beddoes, has been as vocal as the F.L.P.'s Chaudhry in criticizing the failures of S.D.L. The P.A.N.U.'s leader, Ponepate Lesavua, has been instrumental in the Senate for the past five years. The most important development was the ability of the P.A.N.U. to co-opt the Peoples' National Party (P.N.P.) into its party structure.

The P.N.P. was part of the grand indigenous coalition spearheaded by veteran politician Tomasi Vakatora and former prime minister Sitiveni Rabuka, whose party was only able to field one candidate due to robbery at their Suva office.

National Federation Party (N.F.P.)

The N.F.P. is the other major political force in Fiji. Preferences from the N.F.P. in the 2001 general elections gave an advantage to S.D.L. in a number of the 25 open seats. However, this time around, the N.F.P., led by party leader Pramod Rae, decided to give second preference to independent candidates and the National Alliance in some seats, second preference to the F.L.P. in all open seats in sugar cane farming areas, and second preference to the F.L.P.'s partner, the P.A.N.U., in Ba West and Ba East Fijian Communal Seats (Fiji Village News, April 18).

In total, the N.F.P. ranked the F.L.P. higher than S.D.L. in 19 communal seats and in 17 of the 25 open constituencies (Fijilive, April 21). S.D.L. leader Laisenia Qarase expressed concern over this arrangement and stated that both the F.L.P. and the N.F.P. were out to oust S.D.L. from power. Qarase earlier in the election campaign argued that an Indo-Fijian leader could not effectively address indigenous concerns. Furthermore, S.D.L. made two greatest mistakes in the election campaign. First, it remained silent over the R.T.U. Bill, and second, instead of fighting the election on the strength of its policy, it focused entirely on personality.

S.D.L. remains obsessed with Chaudhry and his deputy, Bune. S.D.L. campaign manager Jale Baba has made repeated predictions that Chaudhry will lose his Ba Open seat. In fact, S.D.L. is fielding two candidates, Jale Baba and Faiaaz Ali, against Chaudhry, and in Labasa Open, three S.D.L. candidates, Sailosi Lutua, Timoci Bulitavu and Iliesa Seru are standing against Bune. Such a strategy clearly demonstrates that S.D.L. is obsessed with certain individuals. Furthermore, S.D.L. campaign stalwarts have warned indigenous Fijians that they risk losing political leadership of the country to Indo-Fijians if they do not vote for S.D.L.

The N.F.P. saw such tactics by S.D.L. as counterproductive. It is still concerned that despite giving preference to S.D.L. over the F.L.P. in the 2001 elections, the N.F.P. was not considered for any cabinet position.

What is interesting about the 2006 election is the emergence of any army of independent candidates. These candidates may very well hold the balance of power in post election Fiji. There are 68 independent candidates contesting the 2006 general elections. Fourteen independent candidates in the north are giving preferences to each other and have joined smaller parties like the Coalition of Independent Nationals (C.O.I.N.).

Conclusion

There are 338 candidates standing for the 2006 general elections. The highest number of candidates belongs to S.D.L., which is contesting 48 communal and 32 open seats. The F.L.P. has 59 candidates with 35 contesting communal and 24 open seats. The N.A.P.F. is fielding 50 candidates and the N.F.P., 45. The U.P.P. has 10 candidates and the P.A.N.U. is contesting 3 communal and 6 open seats.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Sanjay Ramesh.

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