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From Issue 51, Summer 2006

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 Government.

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.

 

 

 

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