The Great Council of Chiefs on March 8 re-elected Ratu Josefa Iloilo, as the President and Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi as the Vice President for another five-year term. This came as the military threatened to take over the government invoking the 'Doctrine of Necessity' in case the Great Council of Chiefs the body of hereditary native Fijians chiefs -- appoints anyone tainted by the 2000 coup to the post of President or Vice President.
The military has for sometime been threatening to stage 'a coup to prevent future coups' and to nip the menace of racism in this island nation. There was a tense showdown in January with the government, which the military accuses of following racist policies.
In January, the differences between the government and the military had come out in the open and the threat of a coup loomed large. The ministers had huddled together in a campus being defended by the police, while the military top brass had converged in the military barracks to plan their moves.
There were rumours of police arresting the military commander, Commodore Frank Bainimarama. There was also some turmoil within the military when some of the senior officers, led by acting Land Force Commander Lieutenant Colonel Jone Baledrokadroka, challenged the authority of the military commander. However, Commodore Frank Bainimarama managed to assert his authority and Colonel Baledrokadroka was sent on leave pending resignation and is likely to face courtmartial soon.
At the core of the problem were attempts by the government to pass a controversial Reconciliation, Tolerance and Unity Bill which was aimed at giving amnesty to the perpetrators of 2000 coup.
Commodore Bainimarama had also accused Prime Minster Laisenia Qarase and his administration of following policies favouring indigenous Fijians at the expense of the ethnic Indian minority, saying they created racial tensions that threatened the country's stability. The military commander had also accused the government of being sympathetic to Fijian nationalist rebels who stormed parliament in 2000 and held the then-prime minister Mahendra Chaudhry and members of his cabinet hostage for 56 days.
Coup leader formally charged with treason
The conflict with the government was resolved when the President convened a meeting of the military commander with the prime minister, where the military commander is believed to have agreed to speak to the latter before making any statement to the public.
After the rapprochement, all seemed well till the ruling Soqosoqo ni Duavata ni Lewenivanua party of Prime Minister Qarase decided to merge with its pro coup junior coalition partner Conservative Alliance Matanitu Vanua. The military has opposed the merger and has termed it as ethno-nationalism at its worst, which poses threat to the long term stability of the country.
There were also attempts by a section of the government to get the Great Council of Chiefs to elect Ratu Jope Seniloli, the former Vice President who had to step down after being convicted of coup related offences, or Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu, a former minister who was also convicted for coup related offence. The military came out with strong statements against these 'tainted' ministers.
The seeds of the current problem were sown during the tumultuous events of 2000 when a duly elected government led by Mahendra Chaudhry, leader of the Fiji Labour Party, was over thrown in an attempted coup by George Speight, a failed businessman with the ostensible purpose of restoring native Fijian pride. In the aftermath of the coup the military assumed control and appointed Laisenia Qarase as the interim prime minister, who was elected as the prime minister after the parliamentary elections held in 2002.
After elections, the government with the prodding of the judiciary and the military started a process of rapprochement between the native Fijians and Indo-Fijians. It took steps to reassure the Indo-Fijians about their role in the country. One of the most important steps in this direction was the penal action initiated against the perpetrators as well as the supporters of the 2000 coup. Many of these were highly placed in the government and included the vice-president and a few ministers. Though the government refused to induct ministers from opposition as required by the constitution, despite being directed to do so by the judiciary, it initiated the process of reconciliation between the communities and took steps to revive the economy.
Once the trials of the accused who were involved in the 2000 coup started and a number of key allies were convicted, the government developed cold feet and introduced the Reconciliation, Tolerance and Unity Bill, with the ostensible aim of providing succour to those members of the government who were involved in the coup. Despite opposition from human rights groups as well as the opposition parties, the government persisted with its attempts to push in the bill till it ran into the military wall. The government had stated that the bill will be reintroduced in parliament but the advancement of parliamentary polls which are now scheduled in May 2006, virtually leaves this issue to be decided by the next government.
The reason for the sudden assertion of ethnic identity by the ruling alliance appears to be the fear of losing the elections, as the government does not have anything substantial to show as its economic achievements. The sugar industry and the garment industry, the largest employers, are in doldrums, on account of non-renewal of land lease and termination of multi-fibre agreement; a large number of citizens including vast majority of urban native Fijians are looking for a change.
Fiji, a former British colony which became independent 36 years ago, has had three coups since 1987 as well as an army mutiny in 2000. Each of these hit the economy and adversely affected tourism, Fiji's biggest foreign exchange earner. They also discouraged potential foreign investors, whose capital is badly needed in the South Pacific's biggest but fragile economy.
In the past whenever ethnicity has not been an issue the population has tended to vote for FLP, which has its support base among Indo-Fijians as well as a large number of urban native Fijians. In the last four years there has also been a mushrooming of political parties led by native Fijians, which could lead to fragmentation of the native Fijian vote and bring the FLP and Chaudhry back to power. The recent merger of the two political parties within the ruling alliance is an attempt to consolidate the native Fijian vote and prevent its fragmentation.
In addition the reassertion of ethnic identity appears to be an attempt by the government to mask their dismal performance on the economic front and to encourage voting along ethnic lines.
The author is a New Delhi based security analyst