Fiji votes under racial constitution

Issue 

Five years after the coups, Fijians are at the polls this week in the first general election since the military takeover. DAVID ROBIE reports.

It is likely that the Soqosoqo ni Vakavulewa ni Taukei (SVT), the Fijian Political Party supported by the interim government and a hierarchy of traditional chiefs, will win a majority — at least 23 — of the 37 indigenous Fijian seats in the new 70-seat parliament.

But the SVT is not expected to win an overall majority and will thus be compelled to join forces with minority Fijian parties to form a coalition government.

As president of the SVT, coup leader Major-General Sitiveni Rabuka believes he is best placed to emerge as the new prime minister to succeed Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. But powerful chiefly influences, including Mara himself, are set on thwarting his ambition.

Mara, some of the other eastern chiefly elite from the Tovata confederacy and a majority of the interim government support the more dependable former deputy prime minister, Josevata Kamikamica. Ratu William Toganivalu, the outgoing lands and mineral resources minister, could perhaps emerge as a compromise choice.

In spite of Rabuka having recently praised the efforts of both President Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau and Mara, and hinted at the possibility of a government of national unity, tension remains between the Rabuka and Mara camps.

Contesting the election, which runs May 23-30, is a kaleidoscope of political parties — including the multiracial Fiji Labour Party, which planned a boycott until barely a month before the poll. Labour still maintains that the 1990 constitution is feudalistic, undemocratic and racially biased; it says that any of its candidates who are elected will refuse to swear the oath of allegiance.

Labour's policy change was prompted by bitter divisions within the party over the boycott, and the lack of assurance from its former coalition government partner, the Indian-dominated National Federation Party, that it would not swear allegiance or take up any seats it might win. (The NFP had been expected to make a clean sweep of the 27 Indian seats until Labour entered the race.)

In spite of the lack of time to prepare for the election, Labour leader Jokapeci Koroi, a former trade unionist, said the party would do well, especially in the west and in urban seats.

"We've been the only effective opposition since the coups", she said. "Our sights are really set on the next election after the constitution has been amended." An earlier split within Labour over the boycott led to the formation of the New Labour Movement by the party's then organising secretary, Jone Dakuvula. Ironically, Dakuvula has had his candidacy in the election rejected because of a technicality. New Labour now has only one candidate, Ifiremi Delauca, who is contesting a seat in Cakaudrove province — the same seat as Rabuka.

Dakuvula strongly condemns the regime, saying it distrusts a large section of the Fijian educated middle class and workers in the urban areas, who are inclined to support multiracial democratic organisations and to question the corruption that developed during the 17-year rule of Mara's now defunct Alliance Party.

"I sometimes feel it is a matter of shame rather than pride to be associated with the word 'indigenous' in Fiji", says Dakuvula, a cousin of Rabuka. "Since the coup, the word has been associated with authoritarianism and racism, fascism and even apartheid.

"The so-called indigenous Fijian chiefly tradition is very much a British colonial creation ... The rule is that if the political garment suits, wear it as 'traditional' or 'indigenous'. If it no longer suits, wear something else and call that 'indigenous' and 'traditional'."

He is also sharply critical of the constitution's gerrymander and discrimination against urban and educated Fijians.

Although Fiji Indians are only slightly outnumbered by indigenous Fijians in the population of 720,000, the latter have 10 more seats. (Five seats are reserved for general electors — Europeans, Asians and part-Fijians — and one for the Polynesian island of Rotuma.) Thirty-two of the Fijian seats are spread unevenly around the 14 provinces, while there are only five for the urban areas where 33% of the indigenous population and virtually all of the educated live.

"Through unequal political representation ... the system is designed to ensure that the formation of government will not be decided in a general election", Dakuvula said. "This will be decided through the executive power, which is vested in the president and shared with the indigenous prime minister and his cabinet."

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