One of the truisms of modern politics is that disunity is death. So it’s instructive that two years out from the scheduled return to democracy in Fiji, the forces ranged against the Bainimarama regime seem so determined to tear themselves apart. Hot on the heels of the SDL’s very public self-immolation with its call for a Christian state comes news of a massive power struggle within the ranks of the Fiji Labour Party. It involves the Labour leader and former prime minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, on the one hand and the National Secretary of the Fiji Trades Union Congress, Felix Anthony, on the other. And in the middle, the source of their bitter and very public falling out – Chaudhry’s son, Rajendra, the abrasive and highly ambitious lawyer and man about town.
The short of it is that the wily “Mahen” evidently wants to install “Rajen” as his successor – to eventually lead the Labour Party. All well and good if you think that family dynasties are the best expression of democratic rule. It happened in Singapore when Lee Hsien Loong followed in the steps of his famous father Lee Kuan Yew. But it most often happens in unsavoury dictatorships like Syria, where Bashar al-Assad inherited the apparatus for killing and torture set up his father, Hafez, or in hellholes like Haiti, where “Baby Doc” Duvalier took over from “Papa Doc” before the country decided enough was enough.
Last weekend – according to Felix Anthony -delegates to the Labour Party conference in Nadi were treated to the unedifying spectacle of an undemocratic stitch-up. He says that Mahendra Chaudhry – Labour’s Secretary General – at first agreed to defer a vote for the party’s executive positions but then went ahead and conducted it using the signatures of “cronies” gathered by his son. In a statement headed “Fiji Labour Party No Longer Represents Workers”, Anthony launches a blistering attack on his former ally. He accuses Labour of being caught in a “quagmire of deceit, dishonesty and hypocrisy.” And he portrays Mahendra Chaudhry as a dictator determined to turn his back on the party’s grassroots and establish a family dynasty in which power is handed to his son.
The statement is so extraordinary in laying bare the Labour Party’s inner workings that the main part deserves to be republished in full. The emphasis towards the end is ours.
“The FLP has had a string of controversies involving senior members of the Party. These conditions call for a re-thinking of our options and political strategy. With this in mind, I had discussions with the Party Leader on a few occasions and on the morning of the Delegates Conference in Nadi last Saturday, 25th August, 2012, an agreement was reached that we needed greater consultation on ensuring that we had credible people as office bearers of the Party. The election to be held on that day was to be deferred to allow this course of action.
During the meeting I spoke at length on the need for the Party to return to its roots and become truly multiracial and that the Party makes it mandatory that all Branches must include all races and people from all walks of life.
I spoke on improving internal democracy within the Party and greater tolerance for differing views and positions. I highlighted my concerns on the fact that many well-educated, professional and people of good standing had over the period left the Party because there was no tolerance for debate, opposing views and any questions was interpreted as a challenge to the leadership.
I suggested that the Party must reach out to these people and attempt to get them back on board so that the Party can re-invent itself and be on a stronger footing to meet the challenges of the time.
I also raised concerns at the lack of Worker Representatives in the Party structures. Some of these issues would have required a Constitutional change which is not difficult. These matters were totally ignored as the Party leader and his Son thought they were unimportant to discuss.
The National Treasurer attempted to present a financial report by simply reading from some paper which made no sense to anyone. I again raised concern at the report and suggested that it be withheld and a proper report be presented to the Executive Committee.
I again stressed that the Party has come under considerable scrutiny on financial matters and there was a need for greater transparency and accountability. While this was not received well by the Leader and his cronies, the matter was eventually referred to the Executive Committee.
In the next cunningly calculated move, which has been the hallmark of the leader, he proceeded to read a motion signed by some branches to conduct elections. It is believed that the son worked behind the scene to get signatures from cronies and those who were hired as delegates. The process was over within a couple of minutes. I abstained and asked for this to be reflected in the minutes.
Again we witnessed the total manipulation of the process which is not new to the Party. Here we have a Party that preaches democracy but its practices and its operations are totally opposite to the very principles of democracy. In utter frustration and disgust, I decided to walk out of the meeting.
Those who were in the meeting would have observed the father-and-son domination on each and every discussion and allowed little room for anyone else to have their say.
My interventions were only possible as I had to stand my ground and make a point but on every other issue, Rajendra Chaudhry was allowed to have a comment before anyone else was allowed a voice. This is the antithesis of transparency and democracy.
The current lineup of officials of the Party is weak at best and none of these officers have shown any real commitment to the Party other than to the Leader only. The leadership does not represent workers nor can we rely upon them to give workers a credible voice.
Let me remind those that have forgotten that here was the Leader of the Fiji Labour Party who in March, 2007 recommended 5 percent across the board reduction in Public Service salary and wages as the then Minister of Finance announced as part of the policy measures in the 2007 Mini Budget.
He now has the temerity to talk about the hard times that workers face. If he thinks that people have short memories he is sadly mistaken once again.
The Party sadly has become the personal property of Mahendra Chaudhry. Eighty percent of the delegates are National Farmers Union officials or members. The other 15 percent are the leader’s cronies who survive in politics at his behest. The Executive Committee of the Party is no different. Now he has all his people in the Management Board. His Son, apart from being the legal adviser appointed by the Leader himself, is now also the spokesperson.
The Labour Party that we the workers formed has been hijacked and used as a personal property to advance the personal agenda of the leader and his son.
The party has really become irrelevant and is on a downward slide and will see its demise in a very short span of time.
The possible succession of Rajendra Chaudhry as the leader is an absolute disaster. This will be another reason for the ultimate demise of the party. Brash, abrupt and uncouth reaction to people is a far cry from the polished, responsive style of the founding fathers’ of the party. Fiji is too small a country to emulate the dynastic succession of autocratic countries as seen in Libya.
In the annals of Fiji politics, there have been few more astonishing attacks on a political leader from within. What the country will make of Felix Anthony’s outburst remains to be seen. But there’s one thing Labour can’t escape – that other truism of politics that no political party can govern a country if it cannot govern itself.
POSTSCRIPT 29/8: Mahendra Chaudhry has released the following statement in response to Anthony’s attack, escalating the war of words to accuse him of malice and dishonesty:
Felix Anthony’s statement to the media titled “Fiji Labour Party no longer represents workers” has to be the biggest joke of the year as the Party has been a consistent and diligent voice advocating workers’ rights and welfare over the years.
His statement, therefore, that Labour “can no longer be relied on to give workers a credible voice in the hard times they are facing”, is simply malicious and dishonest.
FLP’s record in standing up for the interests of the workers and the poor of this nation, cannot be challenged. The same cannot be said of Felix Anthony’s own leadership of the trade union movement which leaves a lot to be desired.
Indeed, FLP understands that his statement to the media is not an officially sanctioned FTUC release but the personal comments of Felix Anthony.
It is a pity that Mr Anthony has decided to air his disappointments in public. His comments about the conduct of the FLP Annual Delegates Conference in Nadi on Saturday are a pack of lies.
He came to the meeting with a pre-planned agenda but could not get support from the delegates.
It was he who wanted the election of office bearers deferred but the delegates wanted elections held – after all, the ADC was held after a span of three years and elections were long overdue, executive positions left vacant had to be filled.
Labour Leader Mahendra Chaudhry rubbished claims by Felix Anthony that he and his son dominated the conference on every issue.
“Felix spoke the longest and the loudest. He came with a divisive agenda but failed to receive support from delegates and left before the conference concluded,” Mr Chaudhry said.
This is certainly not the first time Felix Anthony has gone public with his challenge to the Labour leadership. He tried this in 2006 and failed. He and five other dissident members brought considerable disrepute to the Party and had to be disciplined. Felix later apologized and was taken back but received a strong reprimand.
“The Fiji Labour Party has a lot of other more important matters to attend to than waste its time over such malicious and frivolous comments,” Mr Chaudhry said.