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FIJI- Qarase should accept Court verdict:


Paper no. 522                                                28.09.2002

by Dr. S Chandrasekharan

The case filed by the Labour Party against the Qarase government on its failure to respect the Constitution regarding the induction of Labour party members as Cabinet ministers is still pending in the Supreme Court.  In another case where the Court decision went against the election of the leader of the opposition Prem Singh, Qarase instead of accepting the court verdict tried to openly defy the Court.  It is almost certain that the Supreme Court may make a strict interpretation of the 1997 constitution and give a ruling against the present government led by Qarase.  It remains to be seen what Qarase will do then.

Prem Singh loses his appeal against the decision of the Court in declaring his election void.  The Supreme Court finally dismissed a special leave of Prem Singh to appeal against a ruling by the court of Disputed Returns, which had declared the election of Prem Singh from Nadi void.  Instead, the labour party member Krishna Prasad was declared elected.  The Supreme Court took the view that the Constitution denies a person the right to appeal once a decision has been taken by the Court of Disputed returns on election related issues. 

Once Prem Singh’s election is declared void, it automatically follows that all actions taken by him in his capacity as leader of opposition would also become void.  This is going to create further problems for the Qarase ministry.  

Prime minister Qarase commented that a citizen had a right to appeal to the highest court of the land but the constitution does not provide for such an appeal.  Indirectly, he was making a case for a revision of the constitution.  In a move not befitting a prime minister he appealed to the members of the public to join him in speaking out against the decision of Justice Gates who gave the verdict in the case in the court of Disputed Returns.  As a mark of protest he absented himself on 23rd September when Krishna Prasad was sworn in as a member of the National Assembly. 

In support of Qarase, the Information minister declared that the case of Prem Singh was yet another proof of a flaw in the Fiji Constitution of 1997 and that the constitution needed an urgent review. 

Talanoa Sessions have bogged down.   The Talanoa sessions, which had the objective of bringing the two warring sides to a dialogue in seeking a solution, appear to have widened the chasm between the two groups.  The two leaders Qarase and Mahendra Chaudhry met on June 5 to start a dialogue on the outstanding issues, which included land, constitution and the multi party cabinet.  The initial photo session had the two leaders smiling for the first and the last time.  The rest of the dialogue ended up in deep differences. With no immediate prospects of the Supreme Court reaching a verdict, efforts were made to have another meeting of the two leaders for a dialogue. Mahendra Chaudhry declined to participate in any Talanoa session on the ground that it would be counter productive in the “ prevailing political climate.”  Apparently Chaudhry has resigned himself to await the Supreme Court ruling. 

While this stalemate is continuing, the Chief Justice has refused to treat the case filed by the Labour Party as urgent saying that there are twelve other pending cased before the court, which are equally important.  One would have expected the Prime minister to move the Supreme Court to take up the case urgently to avoid continued unstable situation in the country.  He is not doing so as it is almost certain that he would lose the case. 

What are the options left for Qarase in case the Supreme Court ruling goes against him?  In the normal circumstances one would expect Qarase to accept the court ruling and induct members of the labour party into his cabinet.  The alternative would be to call for fresh elections.  Both options will not  be to his liking.  Will he defy the Supreme Court and continue with his government?  He is quite capable of doing so as he does not seem to accept the court verdicts gracefully as it happened in Prem Singh’s case.  In that case what are the options left for the leading countries in the South Pacific region and India?  This is something to be thought of. 

In terms of ground realities Qarase has a point  It is impossible for anyone to run a government if he does not have a homogenous cabinet consisting of members with similar ideology or who are committed to follow a common programme.  If the opposition members were included in the cabinet, it would be near to impossible to run the government particularly when there is so much bitterness between the two warring groups prior to and during the elections. 

The ideal situation and the easiest would be for Mahendra Chaudhry to accept the position of the leader of the opposition and then decline to join the cabinet as provided for in the constitution.  He is not willing to oblige.  He is already preparing himself and the party for another election in the near future. On the other hand, Qarase also has a point when he says that the objective of the constitution was to have racial amity and this is best provided by a multi ethnic cabinet and not a multi party cabinet. 

Will the Supreme Court bring in racial amity?  Not likely.  A decision either way would see more of instability in Fiji and the racial divide brought in by the last coup would continue in some form or other.  In our last paper of 16th May, we had suggested that a third country having no interest in the region could bring about a reconciliation between the two major political parties.  This is not happening.  Countries, which have an interest in the region like Britain, Australia and New Zealand, are keeping away from the dispute.  India’s position is not clear either.  The Methodist Church though influential appears to be supporting the indigenous Fijians rather than having a neutral stand in the current situation. 

The political leaders appear to be part of the problem.  Two instances reported by the Fijian media indicate that all is not lost yet in Fiji.  In one instance, on September 9, more than 20 farmers of Indian origin in Naluwei, Naitasiri, accompanied by Shiu Raj, Minister for multi ethnic affairs visited their land owner to show their appreciation for treating them as one of his own and renewing their leases and most of all for keeping them safe during the May 19 crisis.  On behalf of the farmers, head teacher Vijendra Prakash said that they were proud to be associated with the people of Naluwai who have been their brothers and sisters since their forefathers arrived from India.  In another incident the Indian Student Association orgainsed Mufti Day on September 9 that was a hit among students of all races.  The programme included  a showcase of Indian costume and music.  The Fijian press described the programme as not that of an Indian, Fijian or Chinese or islander.  They were all working towards a common goal- a bright future for all, a future based on togetherness, trust, unity and most important of all, genuine reconciliation.  Will the politicians relent?