Fiji Labor Party: From Unity to Dissent

F.L.P. leader and former Fijian prime minister Mahendra Chaudhry has been accussed of autocratic rule and lack of transparency and accountability in management decisions. (Photo: Arin Chandra / AFP-Getty Images)

The Fiji Labor Party (F.L.P.) was formed in 1985 to promote social democracy in an island nation preoccupied with race since independence from Britain in 1970. The chiefly led Alliance Party of Fiji largely saw itself as the "protector" of the indigenous race from the increasing Indo-Fijian population, which after the Second World War had become a permanent majority. The patrimonial and often clientele-like approach of the Alliance Party toward the indigenous population led late nationalist Sekeasi Butadroka to challenge the Alliance, causing an upset when his Fijian Nationalist Party (F.N.P.) fractured the support of the Alliance Party in the April 1977 general elections, allowing the Indo-Fijian National Federation Party to win the government. Sitiveni Rabuka, who then was an upcoming senior officer in the Fiji Military Forces, contemplated an overthrow if the National Federation Party took office.

By 1985, trade unionists had had enough of the 15 years of Alliance rule and formed the Fiji Labor Party to counter the Alliance. Led by a charismatic indigenous Fijian doctor, Timoci Bavadra, the party struck a chord with many urban dwellers and posed a serious challenge when the newly formed party won the Suva City elections. By 1986, the Fiji Labor Party had formed a coalition with the National Federation Party and ousted the Alliance from power in the April 1987 general elections. On May 14, 1987, Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka deposed the government in Fiji's first bloodless coup. The Indo-Fijians, concerned about their future, fled the island state in large numbers and this flight continues to this day despite the formation of a multiparty cabinet following the May 2006 elections.

During the 19 years since coming to office, the Fiji Labor Party has gone through a series of interesting transformations. Not least, dissention within the party had become public during preparations for the 1992 general election and has continued in various forms since then. There are competing theories on whether the party structure and its ideology are out of synch with changing demographics and the social and political realities of the country. Moreover, there are even greater concerns of branch stacking by influential party members during nominations for elections for party positions as well as during nominations for general elections.

Some of these practices have been raised in June 2006 following Fiji Labor Party leader Mahendra Chaudhry's nominations to the Senate. In 1992, indigenous Fijian members broke away from the party and formed the New Labor Party after Chaudhry decided to boycott the elections under the racially weighted 1990 Constitution. Nine years later senior Fiji Labor Party member Tupeni Baba publicly criticized Chaudhry for his leadership style, left the party, and launched the New Labor Unity Party.

To an ordinary person, the fuss over nomination of Fiji Labor Party (F.L.P.) Senators may be "trivial" but it demonstrates a deeper systemic problem within the F.L.P. Following the election of the Peoples' Coalition Government in 1999, then Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry appointed his son, Rajendra Chaudhry, as his private secretary. Following criticisms from the mostly indigenous Fijian opposition party led by Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, the F.L.P. claimed that the appointment of the private secretary was based on merit. A year later, armed nationalists from inside the parliament charged Chaudhry with nepotism and favoritism. However, on June 28, 2006, similar charges were echoed by Chaudhry's own party members. Poseci Bune, Krishna Datt, Felix Anthony, Atu Bain, and Agni Deo questioned the Senate nominees submitted to the leader of the opposition, Mick Beddoes, by Chaudhry. The five F.L.P. members, including two cabinet ministers, claimed that Chaudhry's senate list was not endorsed by the majority of party members and one of the nominees was a relative of Chaudhry.

The five F.L.P. members, referred to by Fiji's media as the "gang of five," managed to get support for their concern from 17 F.L.P. M.P.'s. Immediately, following the rebellion, the Nasinu Branch of the F.L.P. suspended Krishna Datt. Since Chaudhry was away in Hong Kong on personal matters at the time, F.L.P. President Jokapeci Koroi, cabinet minister Lekh Ram Vayeshnoi, and Rajendra Chaudhry were left to defend the F.L.P.'s senate nominations. The President of Fiji, Ratu Josefa Iloilo, sought legal advice before finalizing Chaudhry's nomination. Meanwhile, former F.L.P. M.P. Vijay Singh accused Chaudhry of violating an agreement before the election by not including him in the senate line up (Fiji Sun, July 31, 2006). The Vuda branch of the F.L.P. wrote to Jokapeci Koroi, requesting that Chaudhry be disciplined. However, Koroi remained silent on the issue while letters were sent to the rebels, demanding an explanation.

Krishna Datt responded by stating that the letter was "unfair" because Chaudhry was party to the dispute and that as such he should only respond to the F.L.P. National Council, which was convened in Ba on Aug. 19, 2006. Aside from Datt, Felix Anthony has questioned not only the senate nomination but also the way in which the F.L.P. is being run by Chaudhry, who defended both the party and his senate nomination.

Rebels within the F.L.P. charged that the party has become a "slave" to Chaudhry and that he controlled all the apparatus of decision-making. On July 31, F.L.P. M.P.'s met to discuss the ongoing rift. It was agreed that Labor M.P.'s would refrain from making further comments to the media regarding dissention within the party. However, on Aug. 1, Chaudhry held a press conference and accused the rebel F.L.P. members of conspiring to block the pre-2006 election nomination of F.L.P. member Vyas Deo Sharma. Chaudhry clarified that F.L.P. members led by Krishna Datt voted with Felix Anthony to contest the Vuda Open seat although he had not applied for a seat (Fiji Village News, Aug. 1, 2006). Furthermore, Chaudhry insisted that there was no agreement with Vuda F.L.P. member Vijay Singh on a senate seat.

In response, Krishna Datt denied Chaudhry's allegations and argued that the F.L.P. nominations for the general elections were agreed to by the F.L.P. management board and that there was nothing sinister about the actions of the dissidents. Poseci Bune reacted even more harshly, accusing Chaudhry of breaching an understanding that the F.L.P. will not make any comments to the media. Bune reiterated that he was only asking for transparency accountability in the leadership of the Fiji Labor Party (Fijilive, Aug. 2, 2006).

The war of words between Chaudhry and the dissidents intensified with Vijay Singh accusing Chaudhry of using and then abusing him and not honoring a decision made by the F.L.P. management board on April 10 to appoint him to the senate and also of using Tui Ba to pressure President Iloilo into accepting him as the leader of the opposition, even though Chaudhry agreed to be part of the Soqosoqo ni Duvata ni Lewenivanua (S.D.L.) government by joining the multiparty cabinet (Fiji Sun, Aug. 4, 2006). Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase entered the debate when he clarified that the prime minister was responsible for appointing cabinet ministers and that Chaudhry had no authority to derail the current multiparty cabinet (Fijilive, Aug. 8, 2006).

The debate between Chaudhry and the five F.L.P. dissidents moved from the media to the courts. On Aug. 11, the five M.P.'s filed a court injunction to stop Chaudhry and F.L.P. President Koroi from handling disciplinary matters, while also stopping the National Council meeting from going ahead on Aug. 19 (Fijilive, Aug. 11, 2006). Chaudhry responded to the court injunction by withdrawing charges against the five but left the fate of the dissidents in the hands of the F.L.P. delegates.

On Aug. 19, 2006, F.L.P. delegates gathered at Ba Hotel for the National Council meeting. However, as the meeting progressed and the court injunction from the dissidents was read out to the members, some F.L.P. members, including the dissidents, stormed out. The members who walked out were Poseci Bune, Krishna Datt, Felix Anthony, Daniel Urai, Agni Deo Singh, Gyan Singh, Prince Gopal, Adi Sivia Qoro, Monica Raghwan, and Chaitanya Lakshman (Sunday Sun, Aug. 20, 2006). More dramatic was that rebel F.L.P. member Vijay Singh was chased away from the meeting by Labor supporters. Explaining the event on Radio Sargam, Chaudhry stated that the dissidents wanted to split up the party and Vijay Singh was at the meeting with his supporters only to create trouble (Radio Sargam News, Aug. 20, 2006).

It has become clear that the events of the past two months have created ill feelings and bad blood among many members of the F.L.P. On one side, there are dissidents who continue to accuse F.L.P. leader Chaudhry of autocratic rule and lack of transparency and accountability in management decisions. The rebels accuse the F.L.P. leader of stacking his supporters in the National Council meeting of Aug. 19 and hounding away members whom Chaudhry disagrees with. Chaudhry has responded that the delegates will decide on the fate of the dissidents in a democratic vote. The F.L.P. National Council voted to proceed with disciplinary action but did not provide details. The five dissident members claim that in discussing the issue regarding dissent within the party, the F.L.P. National Council is in contempt of court. The lawyer representing the dissidents stated that the High Court order by Justice Roger Coventry explicitly stated that the F.L.P. party leader and Secretary General Mahendra Chaudhry and F.L.P. President Koroi should not in any way proceed with the discussion of disciplining his clients in any form (Fiji Times, Aug. 21, 2006).

The dissident F.L.P. members are heading back to court to seek a ruling that the F.L.P. National Council breached a court order as the F.L.P. National Council ponders possible disciplinary action. There will not be a quick resolution to the stand off as both sides of the debate have dug in. Whatever the disciplinary action taken by the National Council, the dissidents will challenge it in court. In conclusion, this issue will stay with the F.L.P. for some time and it will undoubtedly cause enormous damage to the party.

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