Dancing with the enemy: Mahendra Chaudhry (photo: FBC)

(This posting contains new material from Mick Beddoes, the former Fiji opposition leader, challenging Grubsheet’s analysis)

There have been few things more startling in recent weeks than the prospect of a political union between the party of indigenous supremacists in Fiji and the only Indo-Fijian ever to become the country’s prime minister. That union would see Laisenia Qarase’s SDL Party in some form of association with Mahendra Chaudhry’s Labour Party to try to thwart any plan by Frank Bainimarama to morph from dictator into democratically-elected prime minister at the promised elections in 2014. Both men have spoken publicly about working together to find common ground to contest the elections. And while they haven’t yet defined the precise nature of any alliance, it’s clear from those comments that the proposal is being seriously considered.

It was the wily Chaudhry who got the ball rolling, saying that despite their deep differences in the past, he saw nothing strange in Labour uniting with a rival political party to “salvage the country from a despotic government”. Qarase stunned everyone by describing it as ” a very good idea”. “I think it is important that we find some common grounds and fight the next election on those common grounds”, he said. Quite where any discussion between the two has got isn’t clear. Yet even by the byzantine standards of Fiji politics, the prospect of these two old warhorses in passionate embrace is an extraordinary one. It represents a triumph of the age-old truism that ” my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. Their mutual hatred of Frank Bainimarama evidently far eclipses their own dislike and distrust for each other.

" A very good idea" : Laisenia Qarase (photo: coup 4.5)

But why would the country turn to these two again? There’s evidence aplenty that both Chaudhry and Qarase treated the electorate with disdain during their respective periods in government. Both of them certainly overplayed their hands.  For all his undoubted political strengths, Chaudhry as prime minister was dogged by perceptions of arrogance. Certainly, any sensible Indo-Fijian assuming the country’s leadership for the first time would have made managing indigenous sensibilities their first priority. But, alas, Chaudhry did nothing of the sort and arguably sowed many of the seeds of his own destruction in the disastrous George Speight coup of 2000. For his part, Laisenia Qarase – having gained power in the wake of that coup – overplayed his hand by trying to free Speight and his gang and by pushing through legislation to promote the indigenous cause against the wishes of the man who’d installed him as prime minister – Frank Bainimarama. For months, the military commander demanded that Qarase back off. He didn’t and guaranteed his own downfall in the subsequent coup of 2006.

Gleeful prospect: Frank Bainimarama ( photo: Grubsheet)

The notion that Qarase and Chaudhry can now work together is both mad –  as in deranged – and MAD – as in ensuring Mutually Assured Destruction. Does anyone else in Fiji seriously think that these two failed leaders can forge their vastly opposing political forces into some kind of tilt at government in 2014?  One – Qarase – stands for the paramountcy of one race, the i’taukei, over all others and actively worked in government to disadvantage other races through the Qoliqoli or coastal resources bill and the proposed changes to land title. The other – Chaudhry – heads an ostensibly multiracial party in Labour but with a high Indo-Fijian component who still see themselves as having been the targets of Qarase’s program. The idea of any form of union not only reeks of an ill-considered marriage of convenience for short-term political gain but makes no practical sense whatsoever. How on earth could the SDL’s hardline indigenous supremacists work with the Indo-Fijians they habitually describe as vulagi– visitors to Fiji – rather than equal citizens? How on earth could members of the Labour Party – and especially Indo-Fijians – work with those they regard as the architects of their demise in 2000 and their political disadvantage since?

For Chaudhry and Qarase, Mutually Assured Destruction would surely come at the polls as their traditional supporters find the whole crazy notion simply too hard to stomach. All of which suggests that Frank Bainimarama must be rubbing his hands with glee at the prospect of an alliance of his political enemies. He knows they won’t be able to share the same bed for long and already has strong evidence from the Lowy Institute opinion poll that he would romp home at the head of a multiracial party and become elected prime minister in his own right.

Short memories: Chaudhry's release in 2000 ( photo Coup 4.5)

Of course, nothing is guaranteed.  As they say, a week is a long time in politics so the two years and four months to September 2014 is an eternity.  But will these “blasts from the past” even be contesting the next election? Laisenia Qarase is currently facing corruption charges that carry a jail sentence and – if convicted – a ban from standing for public office. And there’s serious doubt that the SDL will ever be able to meet the regime’s stipulation that only multiracial parties can contest the 2014 poll. For his part, Chaudhry will also have to explain to voters why substantial sums of money from Indian donors ended up in his personal bank accounts.

In the meantime, both Qarase and Chaudhry have regained their political voice – thanks to the lifting of censorship – and are actively positioning themselves for whatever happens after the Constitutional Commission completes its work. Here’s a link to a piece by the New Zealand academic commentator, Crosbie Walsh, who describes them as the “Tweedledumb  and Tweedledee” of Fiji politics. Their idea to join forces is just plain dumb.

This article has subsequently appeared in the Fiji Sun.

POSTSCRIPT JUNE 9TH: It has prompted the following response from Mick Beddoes, the former opposition leader and president of the United Peoples Party:

Mick Beddoes

M.A.D : Graham Davis = M.A.D [Manipulatively –Anti-Democratic]

I wish to take issue with Mr Graham Davis on his M.A.D opinion published in the Fiji Sun on May 28th 2012 not because Mr Qarase or Mr Chaudhry need my help to defend their positions, they are both capable of doing that themselves, but being involved in discussions with the two leaders , I feel Mr Davis and the Fiji Sun are not playing fair and should be taken to task for flouting the provisions of the Media Industry Development Decree with a certain level of impunity with statements and opinions that favor the Regime, rather than promoting an impartial, balanced and fair report.

‘The decree states that media organizations shall show fairness at all times and impartiality and balance in any item or programme, series of items or programmes or in broadly related articles or programmes when presenting news which deals with political matters, current affairs and controversial question’s.

 Can Mr Davis and the Fiji Sun tell us if they honestly believe their article showed fairness, balance and impartiality?

It is difficult for me to reconcile how a Fiji born son of a past Methodist Church President,  who is an international award winning journalist, with awards that were achieved from exposing the ‘wrong’ in many situations like the case of  ‘child abuse in a religious organization’ or the story of ‘killer hospitals’  and his work on ‘the state of world shipping’, can feel morally justified to use his skill in the country of his birth to promote a repressive dictatorship while totally ignoring the plight of the people of the land of his birth?

In his M.A.D opinion, Graham Davis seems to have difficulty with the fact that two leaders with fundamental disagreements on key issues under a ‘fully democratic’ environment might be motivated under a repressive ‘dictatorship’ to decide that these issues while still important, need to become secondary to the new task of re-establishing ‘democracy in Fiji and that having recognized this, they agree that co-operation & not confrontation with each other is the way to re-establish our democracy.  The issues they differ on are still important and will still have to be resolved, but the greater need at this time for all our people is to return Fiji to representative government and the reestablishment of our full human rights as soon as possible.

Mr Davis says and I quote ‘the prospect of these two war horses in passionate embrace is extraordinary?’ the truth of the matter is that a ‘passionate embrace’ hardly describes the current mood of the discussions between the two leaders just as ‘extraordinary’ is not how we see the undertaking by the party leaders to put aside differences and work together. We all see it as a practical and just course of action given the current circumstances we find ourselves in today.

As to the performances or short comings of any political leader, these are matters that each leader, current or aspiring must account for to their respective parties and ultimately to the people and it will be the people who will hand down their final verdict via the ballot box.

What I do find ‘extraordinary’ however is that an international award winning journalist like Mr Davis should consider ‘deranged’ and M.A.D [Mutually Assured Destruction], the willingness of one time adversaries in a democratic environment, to work together to remove a repressive dictatorship that exists today?

Surely Mr Davis is aware of events in the UK [where he once worked for the BBC], that saw for the first time in its history a coalition between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems a ‘prospect unimaginable’ by political commentators, yet its working and the UK have had a relatively stable and successful government up to this point and at this critical time of the global financial meltdown?

In Australia where Mr Davis lives, the Labor Party has a coalition with the Greens and with Independents which was established at a very high price to the Labor Party’s policies? And while many are not necessarily happy about the union, it does provide stability for Australia at least until the next elections?

Mr Davis says and I quote ‘ working together reeks of an ill considered marriage of convenience for short term political gain and makes no practical sense what so ever’ unquote yet in almost any conflict anywhere in the world, all parties to a conflict, eventually sit and talk and give in order to receive and they have to work through the issues at the centre of their conflict and find the things that unite them and move forward to create the enabling environment in which to rebuild all that they have lost through the self serving senselessly of a few.

From my perspective it is Mr Davis who is M.A.D [Manipulatively –Anti- Democratic] because, instead of supporting the positive outcomes that ‘co-operation’ by once conflicting parties can make to an overall resolution to conflict, Mr Davis appears to be more upset with the prospect that a union between Qarase and Chaudhry will ‘thwart’ his hero’s plans to become a ‘legitimate’ Prime Minister.

But if as Mr Davis puts it, the outcome of the Lowy Institute poll will mean Frank ‘romping in’ at the head of a multiracial party at the next election.  Then perhaps Mr Davis might like to give us the benefit of his local expertise and explain one or two things. Such as why for instance is the Regime with all its claimed popularity and certainty of victory in 2014 still so afraid to put down their weapons and rule by merit not military might? Why will they not remove all of the remaining restrictive decrees that prohibit freedom of expression and assembly and allow the people to speak freely and tell the truth about how they really feel?  and why are they so afraid to step into the ‘arena of public opinion’ and take us old ‘blasts from the past’ head on in national debates around the country on all the issues so the ‘people can decide’ and we ‘let the chips fall where they may?

I challenge them to debate with us now.

Fiji born and educated Mick Beddoes  is the President of the United Peoples Party, the Opposition Leader with more than 25 years hands on experience in political party organization and was twice elected as a member of  parliament in 2001 and 2006


FURTHER READING June 1st:  The SDL held its first formal conference since the 2006 coup in Suva yesterday. To follow is the text of a speech given by Laisenia Qarase in which he denies suggestions of a coalition with Labour but confirms the SDL is seeking “common ground” with Labour and other parties on the proposed constitution.

Members of the SDL Party, supporters of the Party, Ladies and Gentlemen.

Ni sa bula vinaka! It is good to be talking to you directly again! I wish to endorse the warm welcome extended by our President, Mr. Solomone Naivalu.

Thank you very much for taking the time to be with us and I look forward to your participation in the discussion that will follow.

Let me issue a special greeting to the young people who have joined us,especially those who will be exercising their voting right for the first time in the next election. Use that right well. It is something precious. Inform yourselves about the issues that are important to you and Fiji.

Make the right choice.

I also extend the greetings of the SDL party to our supporters throughout the nation. To all of you here and elsewhere I say be of good courage; be strong in heart. Do not be afraid to speak the truth.

Mr Naivalu has briefly outlined the activities of our party since the illegal overthrow of our Government on December 5th 2006. He has also described some of the problems and obstacles we have faced for more than five years. It has indeed been a most difficult period for our party and our country, particularly with the imposition of severe restrictions on our rights and freedoms.

But let us thank God for seeing us through. Let us thank Him for granting us quiet strength from adversity.

This meeting is part of the Constitutional Consultation Process that our party is preparing to undertake during the next few weeks. My role today is to outline the Government’s roadmap for the formulation of a new Constitution. I propose to draw your attention to some serious misgivings by our Party Executives relating to that process. I will then outline what our Party Executives believe should be the party’s position.

On March 9th this year the Prime Minister, Commodore J. V Bainimarama, issued a statement outlining the consultation process. It has the following elements:

1. Government will collate and print material highlighting issues for the people of Fiji to think about before they make their voices heard. All materials will be distributed widely. This task should have been completed during March-April.

2. A civic education program is to begin in May and continue to the end of July. This will presumably be consistent with the material distributed.

3. After the civic education program consultations will take place between a Constitutional Commission and the people of Fiji. These will be held from July 2nd to September 30th.

4. Members of the Constitutional Commission have been appointed. They are: Prof. Yash Ghai – Chair, Dr. Christina Murray, Ms. Taufa Vakatale, Prof. Satendra Nandan and Ms Peni Moore.

5. From October to end of December this year, the Constitutional Commission will collate the public submissions and then prepare a draft Constitution.

6. A Constituent Assembly will be appointed by December. It will consist of representative civil society groups and organisations that are registered in Fiji, including faith-based organisations, national institutions, political parties, and Government. It is expected that the Constituent Assembly will debate the draft constitution and approve it with amendments if and where necessary. This activity is to take place from January to end February 2013.

7. The Constitution will be assented to by His Excellency the President following approval by the Constituent Assembly. Our Party has identified a number of flaws in this process and expresses its concern about them. If we did not do this, we would be failing in our duty to the nation and to you.

In our view, a Political Dialogue Forum (PDF) should have been established representing key groups in our society. The forum would have been the ideal vehicle for discussions and consultations before decisions on important issues were made.
Instead, Government has simply gone ahead with its own ideas, without the benefit of advice and views from the rest of the community. This would have been a more inclusive and democratic way of proceeding. It would also have been in line with the commitments the Government has made to the people and the international community.

The principles and values fundamental to the formulation of a Constitution, have been proclaimed by the Prime Minister. These are to be “non-negotiable”. This is not the language of inclusivity.

Even though the ideals he announced are generally universal an opportunity was missed to obtain, and declare, agreement by consensus.

The civic education program to be completed prior to public submissions to the Constitutional Commission will use material prepared and printed by Government. As far as we know, there is to be no participation by representatives of the public in preparing these materials. Obvious questions arise about content and message and possible bias.

The appointment of members of the Constitutional Commission is also of great concern. In particular, the three local appointees are known to be very supportive of the military Government. How independent then will the Commission be?

Proper consultation on this issue within a Political Dialogue Forum could have arrived at a consensus and removed a point of contention. We will have more to say on this at a later date.

The appointment of a Constituent Assembly is an important milestone in the process. Although the Government has assured that the Assembly will be representative of society, the method of selection and the appointees will be crucial.

Who is to decide on membership?

If the Assembly has a disproportionate number of supporters of the military Government, then it will be compromised, and so will its decisions. There is obviously a danger here of a foregone conclusion, favourable to the Government.

The approved Constitution will then be assented to by the President. We see certain questions arising on this point as well.

The SDL contends that the Constitution should be referred to a national referendum if there is no Parliament. A free and fair act of choice would be a democratic and credible means of gauging popular support, or otherwise, for the proposed supreme law.

Ladies and gentlemen, the matters I have mentioned are serious. They should be raised and they should be addressed.

However, we want to be as positive as we can about this critical Government constitutional initiative. Let us then show good faith; let us assume that some of the questions that trouble us will be given due consideration and win approval.

It is for these reasons that we are recommending the SDL Party prepares a submission for presentation to the Constitutional Commission during the public consultations.

I now outline for you the basis of our position.

Since the last military coup the SDL has maintained that the 1997 Constitution remains in existence and is still Fiji’s supreme law.

We are supported in this view by a 2001 judgment by Justice Anthony Gates in the case Koroi vs Commissioner of Inland Revenue. Justice Gates said, and I quote: “It is not possible for any man to tear up the Constitution. He has no authority to do so. The Constitution remains in place until amended by Parliament, a body of elected members who collectively represent all of the voters and inhabitants of Fiji. The fundamental law represented in a constitutional document may only be changed in accordance with that Constitution”.

In the case L. Qarase & others vs J. V Bainimarama & others, the Court of Appeal ruled on 9th April 2009 that the 1997 Constitution is still in place.

According to many other legal experts here in Fiji, and abroad, the purported abrogation of that Constitution on April 10th 2009 by the military Government cannot be valid.

We note as well that when the Military Government came to power it asserted very clearly that its number one priority was to continue to uphold the 1997 Constitution. That means it saw merit in the document and gave allegiance to it as the highest law of the land.

Consistent with the SDL Party’s stand on the existing Constitution your Party executives recommend that our submission to the Constitutional Commission should be along the following lines:

1. Uphold the 1997 Constitution and re-convene the last elected Parliament.

2. Follow the roadmap suggested by the Court of Appeal on April 9th 2009.

3. Re-convened Parliament to make appropriate amendments to the 1997 Constitution, including changes to the electoral system.

4. Hold general election under the revised 1997 Constitution. We propose to include in our submission some proposed changes to the 1997 Constitution. We are seeking common ground on this in consultations with the Leaders of the Fiji Labour Party, the National Federation Party and the United People’s Party.

Contrary to what has been reported in some media outlets the subject of our talks is not about forming a coalition. At this stage our objective is to work together on our submission to the Constitutional Commission.

The four parties have agreed on a fundamental point of unity. We stand by the 1997 Constitution. We believe that parliamentary democracy should be restored under that Constitution. There are sound legal grounds for this.

We also jointly share the view that some amendments to the 1997 Constitution are necessary and must be made by following proper process.

Ladies and gentlemen, the SDL party was founded on a vision of peace. That vision is expressed through our party symbol – the dove carrying the olive branch. Sadly that dove has been confined and caged. Now, the ruve is ready to spread its wings and soar again.  

It will carry with it an enduring message of truth, justice, equality and freedom. It will carry new hope for Fiji; a Fiji constructed on stronger foundations that will help create prosperity and harmony for us all in the homeland.

The SDL believes in patient dialogue, good faith negotiation and consensus-building. It is these principles that will resolve the considerable challenges that now face Fiji.

We declare again that we abhor violence, force, threats and intimidation. There is no room for coups in our vision for Fiji. It has been proved time and again that they bring nothing but misery, torment, fear and ruin.

We must go forward from here, side by side, for our country and the future happiness and prosperity of all our peoples.

Vinaka vaka levu!