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close this bookThe Courier N 185 - March - April 2001 - Dossier: Cinema - Country Reports: Angola (EC Courier, 2001, 76 p.)
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Fiji: Towards democracy

Speaking in Brussels where he was attending a Council of Ministers meeting in December Fiji Foreign Minister Kaliopate Tavola declared that his interim government will appeal a November High Court ruling ordering the restoration of the administration put out of office by the armed intervention of rebels led by George Speight who held the Prime Minister and parliamentarians hostage for eight weeks. The appeal will be heard in late February or March and it would seem likely that the interim government would be under enormous international pressure to accept the Appeal Court decision.

That the case will be hard fought is beyond doubt: the administration has its own plans for restoring constitutional democracy, as the Minister explained to Chris White* during the recent ACP-EU Joint Parliamentary meeting in Brussels.

*Chris White is Publisher and Executive Editor of World Parliamentarian, from which this article is reprinted, a new independent monthly magazine reporting on parliaments around the world in the interests of open democracy.

The interview begins with a conversation stopper: “You should not be talking to me. I do not qualify. You are a journal for parliamentarians and I am not elected,” declares Fiji’s Foreign Minister.

Mr. Kaliopate Tavola appears to have brought things to a conclusion before he has even sat down. There is a long pause. He is, of course, right: as he says, this is a journal for elected representatives. But in the ACP-EU Joint Assembly’s first parliamentary plenary he has been stoutly defended by some EU MEP’s as an honourable man.

Fiji’s Ambassador to Brussels for ten years he is without doubt a man of honour and, anyway, he is here to talk about restoring Fiji to a true and enduring parliamentary democracy.

George Speight, who stormed Fiji’s parliament and held its members hostage for eight weeks is now detained, charged with treason. This is the man who would have denied Fiji democracy by, the minister tells us, “introduction of ethnic exclusivity and denial of people’s democratic rights”.

He also tells us that, far from being over, the threat from Speight’s “very active supporters” remains. While he has not seen any evidence it is clear to him that there may be more than rumours to the idea that the coup “done in the name of the ethnic Fijian people” may have been influenced by George Speight’s commercial interests - and that raises the spectre of American involvement, again as yet, unproven.

This uncomfortable issue of his democratic credentials over, we ask him outright: what is the prognosis for the restoration of democracy in Fiji?

“We are quite aware that we are not a representative government. We call ourselves the interim government, or interim civilian government. We were reminded today at the Joint Assembly that it would be more correct to call ourselves the interim administration.

Whatever the designation is: we are running the Fiji government at this point in time and we have a road map to take us back to democracy and the constitutional process. Starting from yesterday the newly instituted Constitutional Review Commission has begun its work and the government has given them a deadline to produce a report by the end of March next year, 2001. We will then have a legal draft of a new constitution by the end of June. What we propose to do is to have a series of consultations with the people to promote the new draft and to try to sell the new constitution to the people at the grass roots. We want to do that by July or towards the end of 2001 when we will have a promulgation of that constitution and what we propose is to hold general elections immediately after that.”

This all sounds fine but we pick up on his comment that they may have to update Fiji’s electoral register and redraw electoral boundaries. Is this some sort of subtle gerrymandering? It appears not. He describes his comment as “a precautionary remark”. And he explains: “we have given the electoral commission a mandate to come up with a new draft of the constitution and obviously that will have a section in it on the electoral system. A lot of people do believe that one of the weaknesses in the 1997 constitution was the electoral system. One major change will be to come up with a totally new voting system.”

He blames the untried alternative voting system for Fiji’s political instability and believes that the country may have to return to the “tried and tested” first past the post system.

“We came up with an alternative vote system which, I understand, had never been tried anywhere in the world. There are similar systems in Australia and New Zealand but not the same. We tried it and it produced a lot of unexpected results so when you talk to people in Fiji now they believe that there is a need for a new electoral system and we may have to go back to first past the post, a system that has been tried and tested and one that we know works. So this is why we are saying that we will come up with a new electoral system. Whatever we have it is likely to have quite an effect on the electoral boundaries so that is why I say we will have changes. There is no question of gerrymandering.”

Nor will the 20 strong interim government contemplate any loss of democratic rights for any section of Fiji’s people. “Certainly not and I made that comment in my presentation to the Joint Assembly. We do not believe in any ethnic exclusivity of the sort that George Speight was proposing. We are not going to disenfranchise anybody - everyone’s right to vote will be protected and defended.”

The government has been compressing its original time frame for holding elections and it is clearly under international pressure but he appears sincere when he says that all will be done to hold elections as early as possible. “Most likely,” he says, “the current time frame will go down to 18 months.”

It is a determination to prevent future coups and not some love of office that has prevented the immediate restoration of democracy. “Our history of coups is why we are giving ourselves sufficient time for consultations with the people. In 1997 they did not do enough consultation with the people; this was obviously a mistake and we have learned from that mistake. This time we want to do it properly. We want people in the provinces and the districts to talk to us and understand what their constitution means.”

It is impossible to detect insincerity in his voice. There is, on the other hand, a clearly audible anger when he talks about the coup leader George Speight. Speight is charged with treason?

“That is correct and the treason charge has been enhanced, which implies to me that it will stick much better now and that is good news. That is the judiciary acting independently. The case is not politicised in any way.”

He turns to the reasons behind Speight’s coup attempt. “The people have tried to address the real reasons and there is not one single reason. There is obviously a composite of reasons. There was a lot of dissatisfaction with the Chaudry government and a feeling among Fijians that the government was being insensitive to some of the issues, particularly the land issues and that was obviously one reason. But the people who carried out the coup might have had other reasons. They said it was in the name of the indigenous people but George Speight had some commercial interests in mahogany and some other things and that might also have been part of the calculations.”

It is strongly rumoured that American commercial interests associated with George Speight may have had a hand in planning the coup. Minister Tavola is cautious: “The question of American interests has been speculated. People say that was the case but if they do say that they have to produce the evidence. I have not seen any but it will come into the inquiry and we will know more.”

He is keen to return to the reestablishment of democracy. It is clear that doubts about his government’s intentions have wounded him. “All the people we have talked to, the various governments, the various people that have expressed their views, obviously want a quick return to democracy and that is a view we share as well. Some say it should come as quickly as possible but while we want to take the country back to democracy, we want to do this properly. We have had two coups already and we don’t want another. We want to do it in such a way that we can avoid this Sort of thing in the future. That is why we are placing so much emphasis on consultation - we have to get the people to really understand what the constitution means.”

Fiji’s Government (above) and Parliament (below). “We have a road map to take us back to democracy” says Fiji’s interim foreign minister

Information from 9 St James’s Place,
London SW1A 1PE
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