By Norm Dixon
The Fiji Labour Party (FLP), the key partner in Fiji's coalition government deposed almost 12 years ago in a military coup led by Sitiveni Rabuka, scored a big win in Fiji's May 8-15 general election.
For the first time, voting was compulsory for people over 21, and polling officials could barely cope with the volume of voters. The voting system, drawn up in 1997, reserves 46 ethnic communal seats — 23 indigenous Fijian, 19 Indian-Fijian and four others. The remaining 25 "open" seats were elected from a common voters' roll.
As in 1987, the FLP's victory was in large part due to its success in convincing most working-class indigenous Fijians and Indian-Fijians to set race-based voting patterns aside in favour of more pressing issues.
The FLP campaigned on opposition to the government's privatisation policies and pledged to remove an unpopular value-added tax. It is committed to a social welfare system for the poor and better education for all. Unemployment and threatened mass sackings in the public service were also major issues.
The FLP won 37 seats in the 71-member parliament. Together with its "people's coalition" allies, the Fijian Association Party (FAP) and the western Fiji-based Party of National Unity, the FLP-led government will control at least 51 seats.
Rabuka gambled that the population would believe his new-found commitment to a multiracial government with the opposition Indian communal-based National Federation Party (NFP). However, at least five ministers and three assistant ministers lost their seats. Rabuka's chauvinist Soqosoqo ni Vakavulewa ni Taukei (SVT — Fijian Party) won just eight seats, and its minor partner, the mixed-race United General Party, two.
On May 18, Mahendra Chaudhry was sworn in as Fiji's first prime minister of Indian descent. Adi Kuini Speed, the widow of deposed prime minister Dr Timoci Bavadra and leader of the communal indigenous Fijian FAP, was named a deputy prime minister after briefly threatening to withdraw support for Chaudhry because of his racial background. The tiff signals that the use of racial politics for opportunist ends is likely to continue.
Labour's Professor Tupeni Baba will be the other deputy PM. Chaudhry and Baba were among the ministers arrested by the military in 1987. Chaudhry is also a top leader of the Fiji Congress of Trade Unions.
"The FLP will unite the people", Chaudhry said. "For too long we have had leaders who have been supporting communalism, and they are the ones who have been keeping the people apart."
Although Rabuka and his privatisation architect, millionaire finance minister Jim Ah Koy, survived with convincing wins in their electorates, commentators saw the heavy defeats for both the SVT and the NFP as the result of "revenge" politics. During the campaign, Rabuka apologised for the two 1987 coups he led. However, most Indian-Fijians and working-class Fijians of all races did not forgive him.
Despite this, the SVT may be represented in cabinet because, under the 1997 constitution, each party that wins more than 10% of the vote is invited to accept one portfolio.
The alliance of the NFP with Rabuka's party was regarded as a sell-out by many Indian-Fijians and cost it dearly. The NFP was Labour's coalition partner in the government overthrown by Rabuka in 1987. The NFP failed to win a single seat, and veteran NFP leader Jai Ram Reddy lost his seat. Almost all NFP voters deserted to the FLP.
The rise of the conservative Christian Democratic Alliance (VLV) slashed the SVT vote in many Fijian communal electorates. The rise of the VLV has also been interpreted as revenge against Rabuka, a commoner, for having undermined the political dominance of Fiji's traditional chiefs. Rabuka also lost votes because he upset the Methodist Church by not implementing Christian fundamentalist policies.
[Some of the information for this article was provided by David Robie, a New Zealand journalist and educator living in Suva. Visit Robie's web site, Café Pacific, at <http://www.asiapac.org.fj/cafepacific>.]