BY MICHELLE BREAR
SUVA Despite being declared free and fair by international observers, Fiji's 2001 general election was riddled with fraud and corruption. The most recent scandal to emerge involves the interim government spending up to F$30 million of public funds to buy Melanesian-Fijian votes.
The "interim" government, led by Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase and the Melanesian-chauvinist Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL) party, was installed by the Fiji military after the 2000 coup. The coup was staged by members of the ultra-chauvinist Conservative Alliance/Matanitu Vanua, with which the SDL now forms a coalition government.
The judiciary ruled that under Fiji's constitution, the elected Fiji Labour Party government, overthrown in the coup, remained the legal government. The SDL was forced to call a new general election, which was held in August 2001.
In the months before the election, Qarase and members of the SDL illegally used public money to secure the votes of Melanesian Fijians by introducing an "affirmative action" program called the Farming Assistance Scheme (FAS). The scheme offered free farming implements to Melanesian Fijians in rural communities, some of whom received up to F$500,000 worth of equipment.
Three months prior to the election, the Court of Appeal ruled that the FAS was illegal as it had not been legally approved by parliament. While similar assistance schemes had been legal under previous governments, they had required beneficiaries to contribute a proportion of the funds needed to purchase equipment. The Qarase-led government ignored this requirement when it introduced the FAS.
Following the Court of Appeal ruling, Qarase recommended that parliament urgently release more than F$23 million for use in the FAS. As a direct result, more than F$16 million was spent in the three months before the general election.
Provinces where SDL candidates had previously been elected with narrow margins were targeted for FAS funds. Rotuma, where candidate Marieta Rigamoto beat her only opponent by just 0.76% of the vote in the previous general election, received up to F$500,000 worth of equipment under the FAS. The money did not go to struggling individuals but to the local council and unelected village chiefs.
Qarase and other SDL members involved in the scam rejected a recent parliamentary motion for a judicial inquiry into the FAS. After this motion was rejected, a writ of summons was filed against 11 SDL cabinet members, including Qarase, for misuse of public funds.
Despite the court summons, and Qarase's own acknowledgement that funds may have been misused under the scheme, he is recommending F$3 million be allocated for a similar program to begin this year.
From Green Left Weekly, July 10, 2002.
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