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Fiji: A step towards elections?

First, the good news. Fiji’s political parties may have taken a first step toward restoring Parliamentary democracy when they met in a cordial atmosphere Friday, March 13 with members of the military backed Interim Government and agreed on the issues to be discussed during the President’s Political Dialogue Forum, which will take place April 3.

On that day representatives from the government and 17 political parties, along with officials from 15 non-governmental organizations, will deliberate on the democratic experience in Fiji, parliamentary reform, electoral reform and the People’s Charter in a process that could eventually lead to elections.

Friday’s meeting was the second time Fiji’s major political parties have met since the country’s military leader Commodore Frank Voreqe Bainimarama shuttered the Parliament and deposed the elected government of Laisane Qarase in December 2006. In opening remarks, Bainimarama called on political leaders to stop engaging in “the blame game” and help reform the government to “tackle years of systemic problems.”

The meeting was held in the backdrop of soured relations with Fiji’s neighbors like Australia and New Zealand and threats by two international bodies — the regional Pacific Islands Forum and the Commonwealth, a group of former British colonies — to suspend Fiji if the current government does not schedule elections later this year. Bainimarama has long stipulated that he will not schedule elections on imposed deadlines or until the country can amend its “communally divisive [electoral] system.”

When Bainimarama initially took power in December 2006, he promised to rid the country of what he termed a corrupt government with a poor record of governance which ruled with divisive racial policies. At the heart of the country's political problems are the poor relations between parties representing indigenous Fijians — who presently make up roughly 60 percent of the population — and the political parties representing Indo-Fijians — the descendants of tens of thousands of indentured workers brought by the British colonial rulers during the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century to help build Fiji’s sugar industry.

More than two years after the coup, Bainimarama’s government has moved forward on the People’s Charter — his political, social and economic vision for a new “non racial” Fiji. The government has spoken of amending the country’s communal representation system (where Indo-Fijians vote on separate rolls than indigenous Fijians) and move to a one-person, one-vote system to help build consensus amongst political parties and attempt to draw power from those parties only attracting support from a single community. (For a thorough review of a draft of the People’s Charter, please see here.)

Next, the bad news (for the person covering blogs). Friday’s meeting was heavily followed in Fiji’s press (which was barred from the main proceedings), but the usually exhaustive political blogosphere and forum posters analyzing Fiji affairs have been less than enthusiastic critiquing it.

Perhaps the bloggers are like Fiji's newspaper readers, who in a list of top stories from the Fiji Times during the past week, ranked this piece number one: “Wife stabs herself after hubby's corpse found.” Stories on the meeting, which weren't published until the weekend and perhaps had lower internet interest, did not make the top ten. The question I pose to bloggers: Why so little interest?

It was people not born in Fiji who seemed to give Friday's meeting the most weight. (For the sake of full disclosure, I am also a foreigner.)

Media watchdog and encyclopedic blogger Crosbie Walsh, now based in New Zealand and writing in Fiji: The Way It Was, Is and Can Be, reported that nearly every participant emerged from the meeting content and, at last, the country produced some good political news.

Almost everyone (minor party GVP and CAMV party representatives excepted) seemed content with the agenda agreed upon by political leaders at Friday's Political Parties Leaders’ Forum meeting. Former PM Laisenia Qarase spoke highly of the meeting. Former Opposition Leader Mike Beddoes was reported as saying the Forum went well and that everyone was presented an equal opportunity to express their views freely on all matters listed on the agenda. He added that the outcome of the Forum was significant considering how things had turned out in the past six months. Even the press was enthusiastic. “Political Leaders Find Some Common Ground” (Fiji Times); “Beddoes Happy with Forum Outcome” (Fiji Sun); “SDL Hails Political Party Meeting” (Fiji Live).

But not so the Fiji Daily Post. Its Saturday super-large front page banner headline read “No Change, No Polls”. The paper went on to write about “an ultimatum issued to political leaders ” … by the Interim PM who was reported to have told the meeting that there would be no elections “if the participants failed to agree on a new electoral system.” This may well be so but no reference to this statement was mentioned by any other paper; no participant mentioned it; it was not even given the status of a direct quotation by the Post; and since no journalist attended the meeting, one is left wondering what the Interim PM actually “told the meeting.”And why spoil an otherwise happy day!

Wendy, who is married to a Fijian, writes Babasiga with her husband and says the country must take these things “one step at a time.”

Let's hope this is one very good step in the climb to a just society for Fiji and respect for the differing points of view…It is a major achievement to sit down and talk and a preparation for the President's Forum (not that the kindly elderly gentleman will have much to say considering his frailty.) There was mention of a paradym shift – hey, what is that? It's an academic term not bandied around much in Fiji, but maybe it is relevant – a different frame of reference, a new model for analysis, that sort of thing.

Gdevreal, an American and frequent commenter at the Fiji Board Exiles forum, is not so sanguine. In a few separate posts — that failed to elicit any response — he argues these political discussions are merely a smokescreen for Bainimarama to cling to power.

As we can all see, the “Presidents Dialogue Forum” has nothing to do with the President and nothing to do with dialogue. Just like the “People's Charter” has nothing to do with the People except one foreign carpetbagger thief called John Samy. Who does the lunatic think he is fooling?

As for the inclusion of NGO representatives:

It is obvious where this is going.
Voreqe will try to stack the deck with only groups which support him.
The bottom line is every citizen of Fiji has a right to be part of this forum, either in person or by proxy by a person they elected.
Recall parliament, have an election under the Constitution, or have a secret ballot national referendum. Those are the only legitimate and/or sensible fair approaches.
But then again, don't we all know that Voreqe's objective is simply his own survival? This has nothing to do with what the People of Fiji want.

(The only other comment regarding the meeting on Fiji Board Exiles is from xtali1 and regards the proposed chair of the President’s Political Dialogue Forum, Sir Rabbie Langanai Namaliu, former Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea. xtali doesn't like the idea. Crosbie Walsh has a bio on Sir Rabbie here.)

Of the Fiji-based political blogs (or those blogs written by people born in Fiji), only Raw Fiji News covered the gathering. And, IG Fiji — the political blogosphere’s main voice of support for the Interim Government — remains missing in action since February 17.

Anyway, Raw Fiji News — who called the event “hogwash” before it got underway — doesn’t trust the deed’s behind Frank Bainimarama’s opening statement.

Fancy Frank reading out a speech, written by someone else, seeking peoples understanding to tow his tangled-up line.

Frank’s talk is cheap, hollow and holds no water.

We doubt he understands what he was reading for he is the worst example of what he is trying to preach.

No amount of Frank’s cheap talk will change what most people want.

The electoral reform is not their priority.

Frank’s removal is.

They know that it is the Frank factor that stinks in Fiji, not the electoral system, not the law -abiding citizens, but Frank.

So Frank, hear this out, your talk is not credible.

It is a lie because you yourself don’t know how to apply it.

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