From Issue 51, Summer
Fiji embarks on multiparty government
By John Wilson
FIJI’S ruling SDL party, led by Laisenia
Qarase, was voted back into power in the May national elections with 36 seats
of its own in the 71-seat parliament.
The Fiji Labour party, which is supported mainly by Indo-Fijians
and was in power from May 1999 until ousted by the 2000 coup, won 31 seats and
its partner, United Peoples Party, representing general voters, secured two,
giving the coalition 33 seats.
Two other seats went to independents, but they later opted
to support the ruling party giving Mr Qarase a comfortable working majority.
The elections were only the second to be held since the 2000
coup, and achieved a 70 per cent turnout
Mr Qarase was re-appointed as prime minister, but under the
1997 Constitution, the FLP, having won 10 per cent of the seats, was entitled
to several portfolios. He offered the party nine posts in a Cabinet of 21 MPs.
With three Senators also in the Cabinet, it will have 24 members, which is the
largest in Fiji’s history.
But it is also the first to have a genuinely multi-party
(and thus multi-ethnic) composition.
The elections coincided with a timely visit to Britain by the Vice-President of the Fiji Islands, Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, who, while
not commenting specifically on the poll results, said he was confident that
democracy was now established in the country despite the coups of 1987.
Addressing a joint meeting of the Royal Commonwealth Society
and the Pacific Islands Society in London, he felt that there was no wish to
return to traditional leadership, and that the right to criticise the
Government was now established.
He pointed out that the military played a special role as it
had been used by politicians in the past and there was much support for its
opposition to the Reconciliation, Tolerance and Unity Bill proposed by the SDL
He acknowledged that there were problems facing greater
integration of the races in Fiji, including the attitude of the Methodist Church and the reluctance of both main
races to abandon the communal voting system
But with the changing population balance, indigenous fears
of loss of political control should lessen and he saw no reason why in the
future there could not be an Indo-Fijian as Vice-President. He felt that the
skills and support of the Fijian diaspora should be tapped, and that there was
still much love for their homeland among Indo-Fijians in New Zealand and elsewhere.
Ratu Joni said that the growth of civil society influence in
the Fiji Islands had been significant in recent
years, as had the growing influence of the press.
These, he felt, were important components of democracy, and
that with a coalition Cabinet they would become even more important as checks
on the government. He also suggested that parliamentary committees could become
more active in monitoring performance of ministries.
It was clear from questions afterwards that the audience
supported the concept of power- sharing and coalition between the races that inspired
the 1997 Constitution.
There are challenges ahead, as the role of the opposition
needs to be clarified, as do the principles of Cabinet responsibility and confidentiality.
But there is a commitment to democracy and a general wish
for multi-ethnic government to work in the Fiji Islands. Multi-ethnic government now has a
chance of being put into practice and the next few months will be of great
interest to all friends of the Fiji Islands in the U.K.
The Fiji Times reported that Fiji’s military commander, Commodore Vorege
Bainimarama, had welcomed the
move for a multi-party Cabinet as “something good for the country”.
• Mr Wilson is a
consultant law drafter in the region, and was the first parliamentary counsel
in the Fiji Islands in 1998-2000.