Laisenia Qarase ( Photo: Fairfax NZ)

The wave of optimism that’s accompanied the Fiji Government’s announcement of its constitutional timetable is likely to be short lived, judging from the public comments of Laisenia Qarase, the man deposed by Frank Bainimarama in his 2006 coup. Qarase has given an astonishing interview to Radio Australia in which he says his SDL Party (Soqosoqo Duavata Ni Lewenivanua) will consider fielding candidates at the promised elections in 2014 depending on the outcome of the constitutional process. It isn’t going to happen and Qarase knows it.

Why? Because all along, Frank Bainimarama has said that no party which stands for the interests of one race in Fiji will ever be allowed to contest an election again. And of all the country’s political parties, the SDL is most obviously in that category. The literal translation of its name is the “United Organisation of People of the Land”, in other words, indigenous Fijians – i’taukei. It was specifically formed to advance the indigenous cause and its program in government was unashamedly pro-indigenous, so much so that it was branded as racist in many quarters in Fiji. Its legislative program included the infamous Qoliqoli Bill that would have required non-indigenous citizens to pay for the use of coastal resources, not just to fish but to cross stretches of water and even the simple act of going to the beach. Coupled with its plan to free the racial supremacists who staged the 2000 coup, including George Speight, the Qoliqoli Bill ultimately led to the SDL’s downfall. Bainimarama – as military chief – demanded that Qarase back down, accusing him of racism and corruption. He refused and the rest is history.

Two years ago, Bainimarama told Grubsheet that Laisenia Qarase would return only over his dead body. Two weeks ago, he said he was welcome – like anyone else – to contest the election he’s promised in 2014. But that means Qarase himself, not the SDL. As far as Bainimarama is concerned, Qarase can stand as an independent or form another party that is multiracial, with members of all races and a multiracial platform. But the SDL? Only over his dead body. It is unequivocal and non negotiable. And lest it be seen as a specific objection to the SDL, the same applies to any other existing single race party, such as the National Federation Party, the traditional political bastion of Fijians of Indian descent. None of these have any place in Bainimarama’s vision of a new Fiji, where equal status, equal suffrage and equal opportunity will – he says – be the hallmarks.

Laisenia Qarase knows this. So why did he choose to ignore it in the interview with Radio Australia’s Bruce Hill? Qarase said he was “happy” with Bainimarama’s statement in the Grubsheet interview that politicians like him were free to stand in 2014, describing it as “a charge of heart”. All well and good. But then he talked about “getting through the selection process” of his own party, the SDL. Ahem. Well, they might choose you, Mr Qarase, but it’s a moot point because you’re not going to be allowed to stand on their behalf. The deposed Prime Minister went on to say that while he’d prefer an election this year based on the abrogated 1997 Constitution,  a decision on whether the SDL would field candidates in  2014 would depend on how the constitutional discussions went. But if the elections were free and fair, the party would contest them and he would win. It isn’t going to happen and herein is the rumblings of the next eruption in Fiji – a raging argument over the legitimacy of any election whenever its held.

Wherever you look, Fiji’s critics – the Australian and New Zealand governments, NGOs and think-tanks like the Lowy Institute – are insisting that any election process has to be inclusive, reflect the views of all sections of Fijian society and be a true expression of the will of the people. But there are some tough questions to be answered that aren’t part of the current debate. Nor, incidentally, are they part of the political paradigm in Australia and NZ.  Is racism a legitimate expression of democracy?  Does genuine democracy include the right to believe in the supremacy of one race and advantages for that race over other citizens? Does it include the right to stand for public office to represent the interests of one race or for race-based parties to field candidates in any election?  Definitive pronouncements are going to have to be made. And Laisenia Qarase has clearly decided to bring it on, to shove a spoke into the Government’s plans right from the start. His tactic is a familiar one – donning the cloak of democracy to mask his party’s supremacist agenda.

For Qarase and his party, it’s still Fiji for the Fijians, the lewenivanua, not equal rights for the whole nation as Bainimarama insists. The SDL opposes the use of the term Fijian for anyone other than the i’taukei. Bainimarama has made it mandatory for everyone to be called a Fijian irrespective of race. What position will Australia, New Zealand and the rest of the international community take?  Will it be enough that Laisenia Qarase himself is allowed to stand to meet their test of a legitimate election? Or will they insist that the racially exclusive SDL also be allowed to contest the poll?

On this most basic of questions, the immediate future of Fiji largely depends, along with its relationships with its neighbours. Bainimarama’s Attorney -General, Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum, clearly senses the danger a re-emboldened Qarase presents, referring to politicians “caught in a time warp where nepotism, elitism and racism were the norm”. Sayed-Khaiyum told the Fiji Times that  “voices that echoed from that past… sought to regain power and take Fiji back to the dark ages.” Certainly, that will only happen over Frank Bainimarama’s dead body, something the international community needs to comprehend as it assesses its position.

In the immediate aftermath of our interview with the Prime Minister for Sky News a fortnight ago, Grubsheet learned an intriguing fact about Frank Bainimarama’s childhood that explains a great deal about his own multiracial outlook. When his father was the local prison warder at the main jail in western Viti Levu, young Frank attended Natabua Indian Primary School. So his friends were mainly Indo-Fijian and he learned Hindi in the classroom and the playing fields.  Until now, it’s been assumed that his multiracial attitudes were forged much later, when he attended that bastion of multiracialism,  Suva’s Marist Brothers High School, but it’s clear they were ingrained from early childhood.

It’s also a little known fact that only Bainimarama’s father is an indigenous Fijian. His mother was a Kailoma – a part-European from the O’Connor and Pickering families. His wife, Mary, also comes from a prominent Kailoma family, the Keans, which makes Bainimarama’s own children only a quarter indigenous. All of which casts considerable doubt on the claims of Bainimarama’s critics that his multiracial agenda is merely an cynical mask for what they allege is his craven lust for power.

While the young Laisenia Qarase was growing up in the village of Mavana on the almost exclusively indigenous island of Vanua Balavu in eastern Fiji, the part- European Frank Bainimarama was kicking a soccer ball around with his Indo-Fijian schoolmates in the country’s west. Small wonder that their attitudes to race are so diametrically opposed.