Fiji plans to return to democracy in three years
Fiji's interim government has set a three-year timeframe for taking back the country to a democratically elected government and plans to hold elections by June 2010.
Fiji's military had ousted the elected government on Dec 5, 2006 after a long drawn public spat between Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase and the military chief, Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama. An interim government with Commodore Bainimarama as interim prime minister was appointed by President Ratu Josefa Iloilo.
Mahendra Chaudhry, finance minister in the interim government who was in New Delhi earlier this week, had called on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and held discussions with Finance Minister P Chidambaram. Chaudhry said Indian leaders had expressed willingness to provide assistance to Fiji and asked for an early return to parliamentary democracy in Fiji.
The Indian government has given a soft credit line of $5.4 million for the rehabilitation of Fiji's ailing sugar industry and it is now considering new proposals for assistance in the infrastructure and rural development sectors.
He explained that while there is pressure from the international community on Fiji's interim government to hold elections within 18 to 24 months, lengthy electoral procedures had to be completed before the elections could be held.
"The last election was rigged," Chaudhry said in an interaction with select journalists and friends of Fiji. His party, the Fiji Labour Party, had complained of irregularities in the 2001 general elections as well as the 2006 elections.
A recent audit of Fiji's Election Office order by the interim government had shown that 1.2 million excess ballot papers had been printed before the May 2006 elections. The audit showed that over 60,000 unused ballot papers were missing and unaccounted for, and there was no account maintained of the number of votes cast, invalid votes and unused ballot papers for each constituency. Many voters had complained on polling day of missing names on the voters list though they held valid voters registration slips, he said.
A population census has to be carried out as the census due in 2006 had been put off. The last census was conducted in 1996 and there had been substantial population shift from rural to urban areas since that time. The Boundaries Commission did not make any changes in constituency boundaries in 2006, as there was no reliable data on population.
The census will begin in July this year and after the compilation of population data, the Boundaries Commission will meet to draw provisional boundaries. Registration of voters and compilation of electoral rolls will take place thereafter. This process is a time-consuming one.
Fiji has had four coups in the last two decades and at the time of the first coup in 1987 Mahendra Chaudhry was finance minister in the Labour Party government and in May 2000 he was prime minister when he and his cabinet were taken hostage and deposed.
Asked how he made the decision to join the interim government after the December 2006 military takeover, Chaudhry said: "Unlike the earlier coups, this coup was not a grab for power, it was about governance issues. I had been articulating that we were heading for economic disaster. After the interim government was formed, I was asked to come in to manage the country's finances. I did not offer to join the government on my own."
According to Chaudhry, the national debt had more than doubled in the six years of the previous government and the budget deficit was ballooning. In 2000, Fiji's external reserves were sufficient to cover the import bill for eight months, but by December 2006 the external reserves had come down to barely two months of imports. About 85 percent of the budget went into the cost of administration and servicing the external debt and corruption was endemic. The economy was on the brink of collapse mainly because of negligence in economic handling, according to Chaudhry.
The international community, particularly Australia, New Zealand and the Commonwealth Secretariat were quick to condemn the overthrow of the government.
Chaudhry said: "It was the natural reaction of democratic societies but they failed to realise that this coup was not carried out by surprise. The takeover was imminent, the army was warning for six months that unless the government changed the manner of governance, stemmed corruption, amended racial policies, amended proposed legislation, it would take over."
"The coups have been traumatic events for me, my family and the political party I represent. I have come to view them as part of the political process. I hope at the end of this takeover, when we return to democracy, we would have completely eradicated the culture of coups from Fiji," he added.