Political matters are moving with bewildering speed in Fiji, something that was not apparent to me as recently as last weekend. I was there for a wedding and I saw no signs of impending political crisis on the streets of Nadi and Lautoka. Nor were there any hints in the paper, both the Fiji Times and the Sun led with the story of a fight over chiefly titles in one of the smaller islands. The only front page Fijian political story I brought back, actually originated in Australia and was about the military appointment of judges. However there was no sign of a judgement in the Qarase case, named for the last elected PM who was deposed in 2006.
Then in a matter of days, the country went haywire. On Thursday, judges ruled in favour of Qarase thus ruling “Interim Prime Minister” Bainimarama’s three year regime illegal. Yesterday the Commodore resigned and today the President went on radio where he sacked the judges and annulled the constitution. Barely pausing for breath, Bainimarama now claims he’s not behind it and the Fiji Human Rights Commission has accepted the President’s decision in a press release. “President Ratu Josefa Iloilo had no option but to annul the Constitution and appoint himself Head of State,” said the Commission.
The FHRC’s website is down at the time of writing, so I cannot confirm if the release was indeed as edited in the Fiji Times but it is safe to assume it was close enough. “The Commission understands that His Excellency felt that the Court of Appeal decision in the Qarase case left him... with no option but to abrogate the Constitution" said Commission head Dr Shaista Shameem.
The opposition movement Citizens Constitutional Forum also quoted Shameem on Thursday saying the President would “be aware of the need not to leave a political vacuum in Fiji and the Appeals court has only indicated to the President what it would be advisable to do so.” Assuming the “so” at the end of that quote adds no value, what I think Shameem meant is they advised the President to follow the CCF advice to call on him to appoint “distinguish[ed] people as caretaker Prime minister and ministers who are independent of this litigation and who can take the country to elections.”
These quick events are unlikely to lead to quick elections. Though the speedy chain of events has now been accepted in Suva, they have not been accepted elsewhere. The Fiji Islands have once again incurred the wrath of neighbouring giants. In Canberra, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s office called it an “abrogation” of the constitution while the Islands' other big brother New Zealand also condemned the sacking. According to the Australian Government, the Court of Appeal ruled the 2006 coup was invalid and that Bainimarama’s interim Government was illegal. Australia said Commodore Bainimarama was behind it all and said “elections should be held promptly.”
It would be difficult to describe 2014 as prompt but that is the timetable outlined by President Iloilo. It remains hazardous to predict what will happen next. Navy commodore Bainimarama still has the control of the armed forces. The Commissioner of Police Commodore Esala Teleni is also considered a staunch ally of Bainimarama.
The unknown is how much power does President Ratu Josefa Iloilo hold? At 88, he is the world’s oldest head of state. He was the paramount chief of the Vuda district of Ba in Fiji's northwest coast and he has been in the job of president for almost ten years. He has been elected twice (2000, 2005) to the position by the Great Council of Chiefs. When Frank Bainimarama seized power in December 2006 the commodore also briefly assumed presidential powers but gave them back to Iloilo a month later when he (Iloilo) agreed to give legal immunity to coup plotters. It is likely we are now seeing the fruit of their Faustian pact.
Human rights groups don’t distinguish between Iloilo and Bainimarama. When HRW issued their concerns about the slow return to democracy, they sent a letter to both of them. “We urge you [both] to ensure the swift transition to an elected government, and call on you and your officials to immediately and publicly make an unambiguous commitment that fundamental human rights will be respected and those who exercise them will be protected,” wrote HRW in 2007. Despite the recent rush of blood to the head, HRW’s complaint is still valid today and still unanswered.
UPDATE Saturday 11/4/09. Looks like Bainimarama is pulling the strings. This morning Iloilo re-appointed him "Interim" Prime Minister.