The SDL's Laisenia Qarase (photo: Stuff NZ)

Three of Fiji’s political leaders – Laisenia Qarase, Mahendra Chaudhry and Mick Beddoes – have said they are “reviewing their stance” on discussions on a new constitution while accusing Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama and the military of making threats and spreading fear. The statement amounts to a threat themselves to withdraw from the constitutional process and means the long- awaited discussions are enveloped in crisis even before they’ve begun. While Beddoes’s United Peoples Party is tiny, Qarase and Chaudhry represent the two biggest established political groupings in Fiji – the SDL and Labour.

Yet by any reasoned analysis, this is a crisis that has been self inflicted. The original spark was lit by Mick Beddoes when he publicly raised the spectre of life-long jail sentences for the country’s military leaders for having staged the 2006 coup. (See previous posting). Unsurprisingly in a febrile political environment after five and a half years of military rule, the taunt prompted a furious response from Frank Bainimarama. In an interview with the Fiji Sun  headlined “PM Warns Critics”, Bainimarama was quoted as having said that “the day that the military will be taken to prison, that will be the end of those who are behind it”. He did not elaborate.

Qarase and Mick Beddoes (Photo:Coup 4.5)

Yet having cast the first stone, Beddoes is now playing the injured party and has enlisted the support of Qarase and Chaudhry – the two former foes-turned-allies with whom he’s been discussing a joint submission to the Constitutional Commission pressing for the restoration of the abrogated 1997 constitution. A statement signed by the three leaders (see below) said Bainimarama’s comments represented “ a very real and grave threat”, especially to Beddoes. “We call on Commodore Bainimarama to explain what he means by the words ‘that will be the end of those behind it’. We also call on him to say whether such a statement will contribute to the creation of the open and free atmosphere he has promised for the talks about Fiji’s constitutional future. All topics are up for consideration, including the role of the military”, the statement said.

Mahendra Chaudhry (Photo: The Link)

The three leaders went on to say that “in view of the threats and warnings” from the prime minister and the military’s land force commander, Colonel Mosese Tikoitoga, they were “reviewing their stance on the constitutional consultations” because “the spreading of fear” was “not consistent with the PM’s pledge for wide ranging, free and  inclusive discussions” and was “also not in the national interest”. They did not elaborate on precisely what action they planned.

In what Bainimarama will doubtless see as a further provocation, the three leaders said they were taking advice on whether any laws had been breached and that “the Prime Minister needs to understand that nobody is above the law”.  They took exception to his comment in the Fiji Sun interview that “the electoral process and its outcomes would not be influenced by Mahendra Chaudhry, Laisenia Qarase and women’s forums.”.  The statement said some of the prime minister’s reported remarks were “undemocratic and unhelpful. It is for the people to decide on such issues, not Commodore Bainimarama”, the statement said, adding that “ it is disturbing that he appears to be planning a controlling role for the army in the constitutional process”.

Determined: Frank Bainimarama (Photo:grubsheet)

Many Fijians will be hoping that the steady escalation of rhetoric in recent days  between the regime and its opponents doesn’t develop much further. Because far more disturbing is any prospect of the constitutional review being derailed in an atmosphere of heightened crisis.  That, of course, may suit the agenda of the three new amigos of Fiji politics, who don’t want a new constitution at all, preferring to retain the old one – the 1997 version – and perhaps amend its blatant imperfections. Yet without a new racially-inclusive constitution, there will be no return to democracy in 2014 and it’s high time Qarase, Chaudhry and Beddoes accept the immutable fact.  Frank Bainimarama intends to complete what he started and threatening  – as Beddoes did – to send him to prison for life can only make him all the more determined to prevail. In the national interest, it’s time for cold showers all round and for the attack dog for the Three Amigos to go back to his kennel.

The following is the joint statement ( click to enlarge) :

This article has subsequently appeared in the Fiji Sun.