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David Miller: Letting Democracy Work In Fiji

When this column focused on the Fiji election two weeks ago, my thoughts were centred on what would happen once the election was over. Not surprisingly the vote was split along ethnic lines with caretaker Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase winning 31 seats in parliament, while Mahendra Chaudhry and the Labour Party won 27 seats. Both men were considered to be the front-runners in the election and this result was expected. However, the big question that hangs over Fiji now is what role will coup leader George Speight have.

The problem with the result is that it gives no party a clear majority in Parliament. Therefore, a coalition of one form or another will govern Fiji. Already there have been calls for unity, reconciliation and for the new government in Suva to exclude George Speight. The New Zealand government has been quick to voice its opinion on this matter and has cautioned Fiji on the inclusion of the ultra-nationalists. Following the election result, Foreign Minister Phil Goff said that, “it would be a matter of regret if those with more extremist views were to gain disproportionate influence through holding the balance of power. Most New Zealanders would regard the inclusion of George Speight in parliament or government as unpalatable”.

Unfortunately, Mr. Speight is part of the political equation in Fiji, regardless of whether people inside or outside of Fiji find this unpalatable. Mr. Goff claims that, “Mr Speight was responsible for the violent overthrow of Fiji's democratic government and people died as a result of his actions. You cannot only follow the rules of democracy when it suits you”.

Mr. Goff must be cautious when making statements such as this one. Mr. Speight was responsible for the overthrow of the Chaudhry government and took power, albeit briefly, through the barrel of a gun. However he did follow the rules of democracy in winning his seat in this election. While he should be held accountable for his actions last year and if found guilty punished, people must be wary about criticising his election victory. Mr. Goff is correct when he says that one cannot follow the rules of democracy when it suits you and this not only applies to the likes of Mr. Speight but also to those who are its staunchest supporters and advocates as well.

Whether Mr. Speight is able to take his seat in the Fijian parliament is another matter. In determining his liberty, the Fijian judicial system will also determine whether he can fulfil his duties as an MP. Under the Fijian constitution, Mr. Speight must forfeit his seat if he is unable to attend parliament because he is in jail. His only hope rests on whether he is granted a pardon, however if Mr. Qarase is serious about reconciling the differences with Fiji’s Indian community then this will be unlikely.

Pardoning Mr. Speight for political reasons would be a major blow to Fiji’s efforts to seek rehabilitation in the eyes of the international community and Mr. Goff is right when he says that it would be serve as a message for other dissidents that violent action is the way to achieve their political objectives. Even with this being the case, Mr. Speight may be granted his freedom.

Therefore, let us assume the worse case scenario with Mr. Speight being released from prison. What happens then? First of all, it is Mr. Qarase that holds the key to Fiji’s political future and direction - not Mr. Speight. Mr. Qarase must ensure that any coalition arrangements do not include Mr. Speight or members of his party and allow him to hold the balance of power. This would allow him a disproportionate level of influence and would almost certainly mean trouble in the future.

Secondly, Mr. Chaudhry must be allowed to play an active role, either as Leader of the Opposition or as a member of any coalition government. The Labour Party did finish second in the election and therefore must await the decisions taken by Mr. Qarase on who he governs with. These are the rules of democracy and if at the next election the Labour Party is declared the largest party, then it will be accorded this right.

I am no supporter of George Speight or believe in anything he stands for, but I do concede that if he gains his liberty that he must be allowed to sit in the parliament. I agree with Mr. Goff that this is not ‘palatable’, however I feel it is dangerous for Fiji to follow any other path. There is clearly a problem in the country with nationalism and there are others who will take over from where Mr. Speight left off. If Mr. Speight is allowed into the political equation then it is probably the best method in assuring that there will be no repeat of May 2000 and keeping him and his supporters in check. By allowing Mr. Speight to participate in the political process, the Fijian government denies him the opportunity to claim that he and his supporters were not given a fair deal. Democracy does not always work to our liking, but like Mr. Speight, we cannot decide to change the rules and determine the manner in which it is carried out along with who participates and how. New Zealand was one of many states that called for a return to democracy in Fiji following last year’s coup. Now it has returned, we must accept its outcomes whether we agree with them or not. Unfortunately this example of democracy may involve Mr. Speight.

PS. I’m pleased to say I received a few replies to my column last week but I need to clarify certain points. Yes, I find Michelle Boag attractive and to those who got a little upset at what I said, then I suggest they look up the word ‘irony’ in the dictionary. Finally to the person who emailed me claiming men like me give other men a bad name, I have this to say: Damn right.

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