Fiji's 1997 Constitution Revoked; New Political Chapter Begins

Deposed Fijian Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase (L) with supporters at a Kava ceremony on Dec. 5, 2006, after Fiji's military toppled the government and dismissed Qarase. (Photo: William West / AFP-Getty Images)

Fiji President Ratu Sir Josefa Iloilo announced in a televised address to the nation on April 10 that the country's 1997 Constitution was revoked.

The decision came from the Fiji Court of Appeal on April 9, following more than two years of legal battle between Fiji's interim government and the deposed S.D.L. government of Laisenia Qarase. The Court's ruling overturned the Fiji High Court decision in October 2008 that legitimized the president's reserve power to dismiss an elected government and establish an interim government in January 2007.

The judgment by Fiji Court of Appeal justices Randall Powell, Ian Lloyd and Francis Douglas failed to clarify details of the expressed constitutional authority that allowed the Office of the President to discharge its executive duties and appoint an interim prime minister. Furthermore, immediately after the ruling, state lawyers notified the court that they would appeal the decision but, pending hearing of the appeal, wanted a stay on the judgment. The request was refused by the court.

As a result, Fiji was left without any lawful authority, and the Republic of the Fiji Military Forces faced the dilemma of continuing under the 1997 Constitution and inviting further legal challenges from the deposed government or throwing out the constitution altogether.

The problems with the 1997 Constitution were many. Following the 1999 election, there were issues regarding the constitutional makeup of the multiparty government. This continued after the 2001 general elections, causing political and communal tensions. In 2003, the Supreme Court of Fiji adjudicated that political parties had to resolve the details of the multiparty governance among themselves. Without any clear rules on how a multiparty cabinet would work, the issue resurfaced following the 2006 general elections as both major parties — the S.D.L. and the F.L.P. — attempted without success to resolve policy differences while participating in the cabinet. The 1997 Constitution allowed for a preponderance of communal seats while promoting the multiparty government, providing communal leaders no incentive to make the government work because, to do so, they had to forego their communal agendas. Ultimately, the constitution failed to cement political stability.

Besides the issue of communal seats and the multiparty government, there were ongoing issues regarding nominations to the senate by both the majority and the minority parties, the dual positions held by indigenous Fijians under the constitution, and the role of the military. Lack of clarity over these issues led to endless court challenges that perpetuated a constitutional crisis that was never fully resolved.

The abrogation of the 1997 Constitution came at a time when there was some hope of rapid progress towards a consensus among political parties on the President's Political Dialogue Forum (P.P.D.F.). Efforts were aimed at developing a common understanding around the Peoples' Charter, which recommended, among other things, an end to communal voting in Fiji.

On March 13, it was agreed that there would be 23 representatives from the registered political parties in Fiji, including the government. Despite this historic understanding, the U.P.P., the S.D.L., the N.F.P., and the C.A.M.V. continued to campaign against the Peoples' Charter and, as a result, the interim Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama excluded these parties from participating in the third meeting of the political parties at Navosa Police Academy on April 9.

The Peoples' Charter will form the basis for future constitution in Fiji, and the president has suggested 2014 as the year for democratic elections in the country. In order to secure continuity from the previous government, the President appointed an interim government on April 11 that included the following cabinet members:

  • Interim Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama

  • Attorney General and Minister for Justice Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum

  • Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Provincial Development and Multiethnic Affairs Ratu Epeli Nailatikau

  • Minister for Defense, National Security and Immigration Ratu Epeli Ganilau

  • Minister for Lands and Natural Resources Netani Sukunaivalu

  • Minister for Primary Industries Joketani Cokanasiga

  • Minister for Social Welfare, Women and Poverty Alleviation Dr. Jiko Luveni

  • Minister for Education, National Heritage and culture and Youth and Sports Filipe Bole

  • Minister for Works, Transport and Public Utilities Captain Timoci Lesi Vatua

  • Minister for Health Neil Sharma

While keeping many of its members, the interim government of Fiji intends to introduce a series of reforms, including a new electoral system that protects the aspirations of the majority of Fijians without compromising the rights of the country's minorities. Already the Peoples' Charter has recommended a proportional voting system, and further analysis and modeling will attempt to align any new constitution with a new parliamentary system.

The interim government also has plans for reforming the Fijian administration and modernizing current leadership. There will be a major focus on capital work projects, and work is already proceeding on building roads that were severely damaged by the January floods in Nadi and Ba. To stimulate the economy, the Fiji dollar was devalued by 20 percent on April 15. In addition, new import and export markets are being scoped in China and India.

While New Zealand and Australia have condemned Fiji for throwing out the 1997 Constitution, both countries may re-engage with Fiji if these measures prove effective. With over a decade of turmoil behind it, Fiji's political, economic and social transformation aims at implementing nonracial reforms that will make coups and factional and ethnic politics a thing of the past.