On February 14th 1929, the notorious American gangster, Al Capone, sent four of his henchmen into a Chicago garage with guns blazing. Seven members of an opposing gang were murdered in what became known as the St Valentine’s Day Massacre. That same day in Fiji 84 years later – which is normally dedicated to a celebration of romance – may also spell the demise of a string of local political leaders. Because as things stand, they won’t just be tormented by the usual pressure to buy flowers or cards for their spouses or partners. February 14th is the deadline for them to meet undoubtedly the strictest condition the Bainimarama Government has set for parties wanting to contest the 2014 election.
By the end of Valentine’s Day, the sixteen existing political parties in Fiji have to come up with five thousand registered members, plus their five party executives, and the princely sum of $5005 – a dollar for each person – or they’ll be struck off the current party register. Even if they can raise the numbers, there’s an extra hurdle in the requirement for their party membership to be spread across the nation – 2000 in the Central Division, 1750 in the Western Division, 1,000 in the Northern Division and 250 members from the Eastern Division. The parties have a 28 day deadline to achieve all of this starting Friday. The clock is ticking away. And as the enormity of the challenge dawns on them, their leaders are aghast and screaming “stitch-up” in the local and overseas media.
Yes it’s tough. As the critics have it, unreasonably so. Yet amidst all the gnashing of teeth, one important consideration has been ignored; that there is nothing to stop the leaders of these parties from winding up their existing structures on Valentine’s Day and starting all over again. They can simply allow themselves to be deregistered and regroup down the track without having to be bound by the 28-day rule.
Why would they be remotely interested in doing this? Because all of these parties are personality based. They revolve around a brace of national figures who are well known – some might say too well known – and whose faces are arguably far more important than their organisations. In any event, those party organisations are in a state of flux after six years of being excluded from the process and in some cases, are in crisis. So why not start again with a clean slate? Why be bound by the 28-day rule? Why not let the deadline pass, dissolve, regroup and then rebuild either singly or in coalition with others? Form new parties and meet the required membership rules in a much more leisurely and considered fashion. As they wage war on the Political Parties Decree, it’s worth examining the challenges each of the existing organisations now face.
SDL: Soqosoqo Dua Vata Ni Lewenivanua: The SDL is gutted by the provisions of this decree. For a start, its name has been declared illegal because every party henceforth must have an English language appellation. Under normal circumstances, the SDL might have had a real chance of getting the 5000 members required to register by February 14th because of all the existing parties, it alone arguably has a truly national geographical spread. Yet it faces several added burdens. The SDL founder and leader, deposed Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, is serving a year-long jail term for corruption. So he’s automatically excluded from standing next year by the Decree’s provision banning anyone convicted in the past five years of an offence carrying a jail sentence of six months or more.
The SDL now claims to be a multiracial party but as its name suggests, it is almost exclusively i’Taukei. In its current form, can it meet the test of being non discriminatory and respond to the needs of all Fijians, as the law now requires? Probably not – at least in the public mind – given the discriminatory policies it pursued in government that contributed directly to Voreqe Bainimarama removing it in 2006. Now that we know that Laisenia Qarase is barred by law from making a comeback, who could lead the SDL into the election, or at least the party that is now required by law to be re-named and represent the interests of all Fijians?
Two names seem to be at the fore at the present time -Ratu Jone Kubuabola – the brother of the Foreign Minister – and Dr Tupeni Baba, the academic and former Labour Party politician who’s astonished the country with his political transformation over the years. Dr Baba was a member of the Bavadra Government that was removed by Sitiveni Rabuka in the coup of 1987. Back then – with his Labour colleagues – he was committed to a multiracial agenda for Fiji. But after falling out with Dr Bavadra’s ultimate successor, Mahendra Chaudhry, Baba did a complete about face. He’s embraced the nationalist cause and – to the dismay of many former colleagues and supporters – now sits at the apex of indigenous politics. The less charitable view is that Baba is an opportunist who turned to the SDL after Chaudhry froze him out. The more charitable view is that Chaudhry’s unlovely personality and uncompromising control of Labour drove Baba into the arms of the nationalists in the SDL.
The problem for the SDL is that Baba is hardly charismatic and those around him are virtual unknowns. Yet at the apex of the party as its patron is someone who is both charismatic and at the apex of the vanua – the Roko Tui Dreketi , Ro Teimumu Kepa. Ro Teimumu is head of the Burebasaga confederacy – one of the three main indigenous groupings – and was a minister in Laisenia Qarase’s cabinet. So she is high born, well connected and politically experienced. At the present time, she is arguably the most potent opposition in the vanua to the Bainimarama Government. At the head of a reborn, renamed, ostensibly multiracial party, she could be a formidable force if she can overcome her less attractive political attributes. She horrified many Fijians last year with her warning of “racial calamity” if the chiefs were ignored. And she has been strongly identified with the nationalist cause- which will deter many non-indigenous people from supporting her – as well as the unsuccessful campaign to declare Fiji a Christian state. But someone definitely to watch.
The Fiji Labour Party: Of all the existing opposition parties, Labour is most identified with one person, the wily Mahendra Chaudhry, who was Fiji’s first Indo-Fijian prime minister until he was removed in the George Speight coup of 2000. As Labour’s General Secretary, Chaudhry rules the party with an iron fist and broaches no dissent. The style is old-fashioned socialism, authoritarian and unyielding, and there are a string of political figures who’ve exited Labour for daring to question Chaudhry’s authority. They include not only the aforementioned Dr Baba but also traditional Labour figures of the stature of Krishna Datt and most bitter of all, the recent falling out between Chaudhry and Felix Anthony, the head of the Fiji Trades Union Congress (FTUC).
Both men now loathe each other and trade insults at every turn, Anthony accusing his former close associate of being a dictator and Chaudhry accusing the feisty union leader of being a traitor to the workers’ cause. Chaudhry’s abrasive son, Rajendra, has fought some of this battle by proxy, amusing television viewer last year with his description of Felix Anthony as a “Chihuahua” and a “howling banshee”. Yet the underlying problem of this momentous falling out is that the labour movement – not to mention the entire left faction in Fijian politics – has suffered a momentous and highly damaging split. Anthony and his union colleagues at the FTUC have broken away to form what they’ve dubbed the Worker’s Party. But where do ordinary workers now go to safeguard their interests, faced with this slanging match between once close allies? What happened to the old song “Solidarity for Ever”? The classic political maximum is that disunity is death. So the longer this schism on the left continues the less likely these titans are to get anywhere in 2014, irrespective of the hurdles they now face.
For Chaudhry – with his main powerbase among sugar cane growers in the west – the Political Parties Decree is a disaster. Not only does he have to gain substantial members all over the country in the next 28 days but his opponents are convinced that he will also have great difficulty meeting certain other provisions of the decree. The most glaring of these is the requirement that any political officer bearer or candidate must make a declaration of all income and assets – both in Fiji and abroad – on behalf of themselves, their spouses and their children.
Chaudhry has already been exposed for having large sums in personal bank accounts in Australia that allegedly came from Indian donors for the Labour cause. He’s currently facing charges in the courts of violating Fijian currency laws. Will he really be keen to declare his assets in Australia plus the land holdings he is said to have acquired in India through his family connections there? If funding for Labour has come from India or any other foreign source, that will also have to be declared and the arrangement halted. Because another provision of the decree is that no party funding can come from foreign governments or NGOs. And the limit that any individual can donate – foreign or Fijian – is pegged at $10,000.
Felix Anthony is also in a bind. His new Worker’s Party was launched in a blaze of publicity in Nadi last weekend, where he appeared on stage with Sharan Burrows, the former Australian union supremo who’s now strutting the global union stage. Was the global brotherhood planning to support Fiji’s Worker’s Party financially? Because it clearly won’t be doing so now.
Before the Decree was unveiled, Felix Anthony clearly saw himself as standing in 2014 as an MP. But the Decree stipulates that no elected or appointed official of a trade union can be a party member and hold office. Felix Anthony screamed loudly about this but then announced that while the Worker’s Party would press on, he would not be standing for parliament. He’s evidently far too financially comfortable where he is to resign as FTUC leader and risk standing for parliament next year and losing. Yet if Labour and the Worker’s Party are to have any viable future at all, the split between them has to be mended. They too should consider dissolving altogether and regrouping rather than pursuing a vendetta against each other based on personal animosity. Because leaving aside the decree, the way they are going they are toast.
The National Federation Party (NFP): This once great party – of the likes of A.D Patel and S.M Koya – is a pathetic shadow of its former self. What on earth is the point of its existence? It was once the principal opposition party in Fiji, the Indo-Fijian counterweight to the “Fijians” and “others” in Ratu Mara’s successive governments. Yet what is its raison d’etre now? Pramod Rae is fighting a losing battle against total irrelevance. The great quest of the old NFP was one, man, one vote. Yet now that it’s finally got it -thanks to Voreqe Bainimarama – Pramod Rae thunders on. He too has no hope of meeting the stipulation of being a national party representing the whole country. It’s high time for the NFP to dissolve and its existing members to seek political solace elsewhere. Times have changed but the NFP hasn’t.
The United People’s Party: Mick Beddoes seems a lovely bloke and given the pasting Grubsheet has given him, we were impressed when he warmly shook our hand when we recently ran into each other. Yet his mouth is infinitely bigger than his electoral base and he needs to realise it and give up. The UPP is Mick, a small rump of old “general voters” and people who also think Mick is a lovely bloke. Given that he has no hope of meeting the provisions of the Political Parties Decree, he should forge new alliances if he has any thought of staying in politics, which he must do otherwise he would shut up.
The “Perfectly Frank Party” aka the Great Unknown: And so to arguably the biggest unknown of all, just what will happen if Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama does what many expect him to do and morph into a civilian politician. Will he or won’t he? The whole nation is asking the question and we haven’t got a formal answer yet. But whatever the Government’s opponents say about the Political Parties Decree, they can’t say it is selective and doesn’t apply to everyone. Apart, of course. from the obvious fact that if Voreqe Bainimarama forms a political party and stands, he’s obviously not bound by the 28 day limit to register. That’s because he’s yet to declare his hand and says he won’t do so until after the new constitution is finalised. On every other provision of the Decree, the Prime Minister would have to live by the same rules as everyone else.
As the Attorney General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, made clear this week, any member of the RFMF who wants to stand as a candidate next year will have to resign their commission. This means that if Bainimarama runs, it will be as a civilian. He will leave the military and contest the election with a list of candidates who are all civilians and have to live or die politically at the hands of the Fijian people under the same rules as everyone else. None of them can hold any public office, they must declare all their assets and those of their families, take no money from companies, take no more than $10-thousand from any individual, no money from foreign governments or NGOs, no “freebies” or kickbacks, their personal finances laid bare. Yes, all those alleged millions in Chinese bank accounts included.
No-one can accuse the Prime Minister or his Attorney-General – the architect of this decree – of double standards. What’s good for the geese in the old parties is also good for the ducks who’ve worked hard over the past six years to produce the Bainimarama Revolution – to smash the racial paradigm of the past and introduce the first genuine parliamentary democracy in Fiji of one person, one vote, one value. The old parties can’t see it yet and neither can their overly excitable fans in Fiji and abroad. But come the election next year, every candidate – including Voreqe Bainimarama if he so chooses – will be presenting themselves for the nation to make its decision on the same footing – transparently, fairly and with precisely the same opportunity to win. Now that we have a level playing field at last, Fijian voters may not know precisely right now who is going to make up the competing teams. But get set for one hell of a game.