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Fiji Labor Party in 'Crisis'

Sanjay Ramesh, Sydney, Australia, July 10, 2006

Fijian Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase holds a press conference after being officially sworn in for another term earlier this year. (Photo: Bruce Southwick / AFP-Getty Images)

Fijians were pleasantly surprised when Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase invited the Fiji Labor Party (F.L.P.) to join the multiparty cabinet, as mandated by Fiji's multiracial 1997 constitution. For the past six years, both the Fiji Labor Party and Soqosoqo ni Duavata ni Lewenivanua (S.D.L.) were archenemies. Ever since S.D.L. enacted the Social Justice Act in 2001 under the Blueprint of Fijian Supremacy, relations between the two rivals deteriorated and a series of legal actions by the F.L.P. in anticipation of being represented in government continued unabated until the matter was finally left to wither away in 2003. Worse perhaps, the F.L.P. chose not to cooperate with S.D.L. over land legislation and with the introduction of the Racial Tolerance and Unity (R.T.U.) bill in 2005, the F.L.P. and the various N.G.O.'s declared war on S.D.L.

When the dust finally settled over the May 2006 elections, it was clear that Fiji was bitterly polarized along ethnic lines. Indigenous Fijians voted as a bloc for S.D.L. and a similar trend was repeated with the Indo-Fijians and the F.L.P. With nearly 80 percent of support for each party in their respective communal constituency and the number of open seats evenly split between the two, the scene was set for continued polarization, bitterness, racism, and finger pointing — a hallmark of Fiji politics since independence of the island nation in 1970.

Following an overwhelming show of support for S.D.L. among indigenous Fijians, Qarase declared himself the winner and invited eight F.L.P. members to join the multiparty cabinet. The names of the nine candidates and their corresponding portfolios were submitted by the F.L.P. to Qarase, who later reshuffled the nominations much to the antagonism of F.L.P. leader Mahendra Chaudhry. One nominated member, Felix Anthony, excused himself from the nomination and in his place the F.L.P.'s Ragho Nand was nominated. Chaudhry accused Qarase of acting in "bad faith" but at the party meeting, veteran F.L.P. politician Poseci Bune and Krishna Datt spoke in favor of working with S.D.L.

With the swearing in ceremony completed, a new battleground opened up. F.L.P. leader Chaudhry claimed that he was the rightful leader of the opposition and was entitled to continue in that role. However, the Fiji government solicitor was of a different opinion and Mick Beddoes of the United Peoples' Party (U.P.P.) was sworn in as the leader of the opposition on June 2. Even though Beddoes took over the mantle of opposition, Chaudhry continued to occupy the opposition office at the parliamentary complex. While Beddoes was happy to work from his "small" U.P.P. office, questions started to surface about Chaudhry and his role in post election Fiji.

Some commented that Chaudhry be brought in to cabinet to end his political isolation and Prime Minister Qarase greeted this idea with cautious optimism. Meanwhile, the rest of Fiji had jumped on the multiparty bandwagon. In opening the new session of Parliament, President Ratu Josefa Iloilo supported multiparty governance and requested Fiji's leaders to foster greater cooperation and consensus between indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians. The president's call was supported by F.L.P.'s Krishna Datt and a group of academics at the University of South Pacific made direct appeal to the president for assisting with building political consensus among Fiji's diverse groups.

However, relations in the current Fiji cabinet was placed under strain when F.L.P. Minister for Mineral Resources Lekh Ram Vayeshnoi clarified that he would not support policies of the government that was contrary to those of the F.L.P. Chaudhry verified that the F.L.P. cabinet ministers were guided by F.L.P. policy and not by those of S.D.L .

Former FLP member and minister in the Peoples' Coalition Government, Dr. Ganesh Chand, weighed in on the debate and argued that his former boss felt that he was "left out" and that the party faced internal problems. Vice president of Fiji, Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, echoed similar sentiment and stated that Chaudhry had the ability to end the multiparty cabinet. On one hand, a group of F.L.P. cabinet ministers was dedicated to making the multiparty governance work while the other group comprising of mostly non-cabinet members and many influential within F.L.P.'s management board wanted F.L.P. ministers to push the party agenda in government. The leader of the F.L.P., Chaudhry, was clearly associated with the latter group as he maneuvered to place his supporters in the Senate through the leader of the opposition.

On Wednesday, June 28, the senate nomination issue reached a crisis point and an emergency meeting was convened by the F.L.P. cabinet minister, Poseci Bune. At the meeting, Chaudhry's nomination was torn up and an alternative list was submitted to the leader of the opposition, who after seeking legal advice, chose to endorse Chaudhry's initial list. However, the president of Fiji decided not to go ahead with the F.L.P. nomination and sought clarification as to who in the F.L.P. was the parliamentary leader. Chaudhry supporters Lekh Ram Vyeshnoi and party president Jokapeci Koroi lashed out at the Wednesday meeting declaring it null and void.

Meanwhile, former Vuda member of Parliament and F.L.P. stalwart Vijay Singh criticized Chaudhry for not including him in the senate line up, citing a written pre election agreement between the party leadership on a guaranteed senate position. Further turmoil gripped the party as Chaudhry's son, Rajendra Chaudhry, entered the debate over the senate nomination and called those working against his father "failed politicians" with "hidden agendas."

With the F.L.P. senate nomination in limbo and with pro- and anti-Chaudhry factions emerging from the senate fiasco, the health of the party and the multiparty cabinet both seemed to be in immediate danger of unraveling. Rumors started that those who questioned Chaudhry in public — Bune, Datt, Anthony and 'Atu Bain — would face the wrath of Chaudhry when he returned from a private trip to Hong Kong on Wednesday, July 5.

Writing in the Fiji Sun on Monday, July 3, Oxford academic Victor Lal summed up the sad saga within the F.L.P. by stating that Chaudhry is like a "maharaja" without the "dhoti" — that is, a political emperor without clothes. What this emperor will do next will largely determine what happens to dissenting F.L.P. members and the multiparty cabinet.

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