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Fiji: Constitutional Impasse- Prime minister Qarase should talk it over with Mahendra Chaudhry


Paper no. 457                                              16.05.2002

by Dr. S. Chandrasekharan

We can only say that goodwill and acceptance is a very important principle in democracy- Ratu Rakuita

Compromise or get out! This was more or less the message some of the Parliamentarians in Fiji gave to the two warring leaders Prime Minister Qarase and Mahendra Chaudhry, Leader of the Labour Party.

In an emotional appeal, the New Labour Party leader Ofa Swann said that the two leaders should talk their differences over and solve the constitutional impasse or otherwise "they should step down and hand over leadership to others who are capable."  He also pointed out that the differences have resulted in many legal battles and the public has had to pay for the court costs.

A similar appeal was made by Prerm Singh, the leader of opposition who called on the two leaders to get together and talk over issues because "the whole nation is looking at them and they seemed to remain adrift from each other." He also added that the 1997 Constitution "provides for a multi party Cabinet and the court had ruled for it and political leaders should take heed."

The crux of the issue is whether Qarase could forget the differences and go for a multi party Cabinet as provided for in the 1997 Constitution and as directed by the court. In response to the appeal of the Parliamentarians, Mahendra Chaudhry said that he was ready to talk to the Prime Minister but as the leader of the Government the Prime Minister should make the first move. Qarase on the other hand said that after eight months in office and in all Parliamentary sessions, his Government had been strongly criticised by Mahendra Chaudhry’s party and only when the attacks stop and he feels that the Labour is genuine in supporting him would he extend an invitation to Chaudhry to talk over the differences.

The problem is both the leaders have big sized egos and are not willing to relent. Both have forgotten what has been said by Ratu Rakuita that goodwill and acceptance are essential requirements of a democracy. Meanwhile Prime Minister is not particularly covering himself with glory by going in for initiatives to sustain the primacy of the local Fijians and Rotumans at the expense of Indo Fijians, thus further widening the ethnic divide between the two communities.

Some of the actions and statements of Prime Minister Qarase include:

* Replacing two Indo Fijians in overseas postings in Japan and United Nations with ethnic Fijians. Rishi Ram serving in Japan and Amraiya Naidu, Fiji’s representative to the United Nations have been replaced by former minister Ratu Tevita Momoedonu and Police Commissioner Isikia Sauva respectively. A labour MP Poseci Bune described the new postings as politically motivated and part of ethnic cleansing being indulged in by the government. The ousted representatives had been prematurely recalled and had not completed their term of office.

* Qarase in his capacity as Minister for Fijian affairs pushed through in great haste two bills to amend the Native Lands bill and Native Lands trust bill to effect the transfer of Schedule A and B lands from the State to the Native Land Trust Board.

Schedule A lands are known as extinct mataqali lands and Schedule B lands are known as vacant lands and both together represent about 52 percent of state land administered by the State. The bills were still in the committee stage in the Parliament and were passed in the present session amidst strong opposition and heated debate from the labour benches. Earlier four members of the Labour party refused to sign the committee’s final report to the Parliament..

The return of Schedule A and B lands would increase the land ownership of Indigenous Fijians from 83 percent to 92 percent to the detriment of poorer sections of Indo Fijians who are already at the mercy of indigenous land owners.

* On the recommendation of Qarase , the Great Council of Chiefs accepted the government’s 20-year development plan for Fijians and Rotumans. The Plan is specifically for the indigenous people to benefit in the long term in education, health and rural development. There is no word of any plan for the poorer sections of Indo Fijians who are similarly placed economically in a disadvantaged position.

* Qarase in one of the meetings declared that his government remains "firmly" committed to a comprehensive review of the 1997 Constitution to ensure that "it genuinely reflects the wishes of the people." What is unstated but implied is that the constitution should be amended to restore the supremacy of the indigenous Fijians.

While continuing to defy the court order and violating the Constitution, Qarase appealed to Mahendra Chaudhry to become the opposition leader and decline to join the government and by doing this the latter (chaudhry) could demonstrate a spirit of patriotism and placing the country’s stability above other considerations. He was also willing to consider a voluntary (read -exclude the labour party representatives) multi ethnic Government and Cabinet which would be ideal and makes lot of political sense.

One lone voice pleading for sanity was the President -Ratu Josefa Iloilo. He appointed seven Labour Party representatives as senators without waiting for the order of the final court of appeals. In his address to the Great Council of Chiefs meeting in Suva on May 9, he reminded the leaders that the foundation for the governance of Fiji, as endorsed by the country’s chiefs would always be multi racialism. Earlier, he begged the country’s leaders to put aside their differences and unite the people. This process he said would demand perseverance and patience and the only way to move forward.

Will the two leaders Qarase and Mahendra Chaudhry set aside their differences in the interest of the country and multi ethnic unity of the people? In the present atmosphere where heated exchanges take place between the two leaders almost every day it is doubtful whether they would. Perhaps a third country having no interest in the region could bring about a reconciliation. This is important and urgent from India’s point of view.