Fiji Times 9/11/08
“The existing electoral system which entrenches communal voting is the root cause of racial politics in Fiji. I must say the blame for this lies on the short-sightedness of our leaders in 1997. Driven by their own communal base, these leaders completely reversed the recommendations contained in the Reeves Commission for Fiji to adopt a majority of Open seats as proposed to Communal seats, as a necessary step to moving away from race based politics”. – Mahendra Pal Chaudhry – May 2005.This is an excerpt from a speech delivered by Fiji Labour Party leader Mahendra Chaudhry titled “The Coups – Missed Opportunities”. Mr Chaudhry was speaking at a Labour Party organised remembrance day to mark the coups of 1987 and 2000. His speech was posted on the FLP website http://www.flp.org.fj on May 20, 2005.
In the speech Mr Chaudhry, who was then the opposition leader in Parliament, rightly pointed out the social, economic and political ills plaguing Fiji since Sitiveni Rabuka executed the first military coup on May 14, 1987. Mr Chaudhry highlighted the irreparable damage the three coups until then had caused to race relations, the tourism sector, sugar industry, agricultural sector in terms of non-renewal of land leases, massive brain drain and loss of skilled workers due to mass migration, increase in unemployment and poverty etc.
It therefore surprised many current and former associates of Mr Chaudhry when he joined the military installed interim regime on January 9, 2007 as interim Minister for Finance, National Planning and Sugar under the pretext that he would help rescue Fiji from disaster. What the FLP leader meant was that he would prevent economic decline, resurrect the sugar industry, reduce cost of living and ensure that Fiji became the promised land
“A strange twist of fate” was how the front page of The Fiji Times of January 10, 2007 described Mr Chaudhry’s appointment as interim minister a day earlier. The Fiji Sun was more dramatic and its January 10 2007 edition carried the headline “Return of the master”. The predominantly Indian FLP supporters (80per cent at that time based on May 2006 election results) were on cloud nine. Their chosen one was now in government although it was formed through the barrel of the gun. Their euphoria knew no bounds when interim Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama described Mr Chaudhry as Robin Hood.
He served as an interim minister for 20 months until August 18, 2008 when he claims he resigned because his party needed him. According to Mr Chaudhry, FLP work was neglected when he was in the regime. His statement means that the Labour Party is basically like ground zero without him. It also means that other office bearers and stalwarts of the FLP are lame ducks, ineffective, inefficient and good for nothing. They need M P Chaudhry to resuscitate them. If Mr Chaudhry’s statement is true, then it basically means the FLP is a one man band – and that is M P Chaudhry. If the FLP leader is wrong, then his statement is an insult to the FLP loyalists.
However, Mr Chaudhry’s claim that he was joining the interim regime to re-build Fiji was essentially shot down to pieces by Commodore Bainimarama on Thursday 4 September, 2008 when he admitted before interim ministers and permanent secretaries that his regime had not achieved as much as it could have since coming into power in January 2007. He also said the 2009 Budget would be pro-poor. The term, pro-poor, that has been coined by the interim PM, means that the poor will become poorer after the 2009 Budget comes into effect from January 1 next year. Surely Commodore Bainimarama doesn’t want the poor to suffocate! What he has been indicating since September is that Budget 2009 will have policies that will benefit the poor.
Commodore Bainimarama’s admission speaks volumes about Mr Chaudhry’s performance as the interim Finance Minister for 20 months. The interim PM, for all intents and purposes, has basically stated that his Robin Hood had failed to revive the economy and lift the poor out of poverty. He basically meant that the economic policies adopted by his regime for 20 months until August 2008 had failed to revive the economy out of stagnation. No wonder a mini-economic summit was held for two days to get the views of the public sector and economic experts on how to start Fiji’s engine of growth!
And the fact that the 2009 Budget intends to be benefit the poor means Commodore Bainimarama’s Robin Hood failed to live up to the tag he anointed him with. If Mr Chaudhry wasn’t working towards uplifting the living standards of the poor and ordinary workers, then who was he enriching for the last 20 months? Perhaps Commodore Bainimarama, in his capacity as the acting interim Finance Minister, will hopefully answer this $2 million question when announcing the 2009 Budget.
This aim of implementing policies that would benefit the poor brings the opening paragraph of this opinion into significance. It is relevant in the aftermath of Commodore Bainimarama’s congratulatory message towards the President-elect of the United States of America, Barack Obama, who possibly has changed the American political landscape forever after his resounding victory built on the platform of hope and change.
Commodore Bainimarama’s statement basically compares Mr Obama’s theme of change with the draft People’s Charter when he states that “we in Fiji are also pursuing change in a whole range of areas pertaining to the governance of our country for achievement of genuine parliamentary democracy and lasting peace and prosperity for our people”.
Both Commodore Bainimarama and Mr Chaudhry are steadfast in their belief that the electoral provisions under the 1997 Constitution are a major reason for Fiji’s problems that include widening of the racial divide, economic stagnation, bad governance, rising unemployment, poverty etc. The people of the United States experienced one of the worst periods of governance in their history under the leadership of George W Bush. His approval ratings as President have been one of the lowest, falling well below 30 percentage points. But the military remained subservient to their commander-in-chief – Mr Bush. The most powerful armed forces in the world did not step into the shoes of the President to execute a coup. The armed forces did not wage a truth and justice campaign before the Presidential elections unlike the Republic of Fiji Military Forces before the 2006 elections.
And Mr Obama did not campaign for changes to the US electoral system where the electoral votes assigned to each State instead of popular vote determines the winner of Presidential elections. Commodore Bainimarama therefore cannot compare Mr Obama’s stunning victory with his and Mr Chaudhry’s change agenda, where both have supported the abolition of communal seats and removal of the alternative voting system proposed in the draft People’s Charter, that requires amendments to the 1997 Constitution. The ballot box throughout United States endorsed Mr Obama’s change and hope agenda – unlike in Fiji where Commodore Bainimarama and his Robin Hood’s change agenda is being pursued at the barrel of the gun.
And Commodore Bainimarama must be reminded of his own words that he uttered in May 2008, where he said the army carried out coups in 1987, 2000 and 2006 because politicians had failed the people of Fiji. The armed forces of the United States did not assist Barack Obama in winning the Presidential election despite the failed leadership of George Bush in the last years which has seen the sons and daughters of America engaged in an highly unpopular war in Iraq and the nation’s economy in severe crisis with citizens losing their homes, unemployment levels skyrocketing, the financial and stock markets plummeting and the health care system in a very sick state.
But no barrel of the gun, no change agenda for the electoral system, no instant dismissal of top ranked public servants and no threats were issued by the by the military to ensure Barack Obama’s victory.
It was strictly in accordance with the shining values of democracy, the constitution and the will of the people of the United States of America. Comparing Barack Obama’s successful message of change and hope with the interim regime’s version of change is like comparing thoroughbred horses with donkeys.