Saturday, January 12, 2008

Voreqe changes election tune

Vereniasi Raicola
Friday, January 11, 2008

Senior civil servants in attentive mood during their orientation on the Peoples Charter at the Force Training Group in Nasinu late last year+ Enlarge this image

Senior civil servants in attentive mood during their orientation on the Peoples Charter at the Force Training Group in Nasinu late last year

The leader of the interim regime that ousted Laisenia Qarase's government in 2006, Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama had earlier committed Fiji to the polls in the first quarter of 2009.

Today he has changed his tune and wants the People's Charter for Change and Progress implemented before an election eventuates.

When the election undertaking was made by the interim Prime Minister to the Pacific Islands Leaders Forum retreat in Tonga in October last year, many breathed a sigh of relief, for Fiji was finally returning to some form of democratic rule.

However, when the announcement was made, diplomatic missions viewed with caution the interim regime's decision to agree in principle to holding general elections in the first quarter of 2009.

While they welcomed the announcement, the countries said they would pledge their support but wanted to see if the regime was serious and committed to the timeframe.

United States ambassador to Fiji Larry Dinger said the timeframe was reasonable but the US was going to wait for signs that the actual process would take place before considering assisting Fiji financially through their aid which has remained suspended since the takeover.

Mr Dinger said the US would certainly join other countries in assisting Fiji get back to democratic rule.

Australia said it was willing to provide technical and financial assistance for an election provided there was a serious and demonstrated commitment to hold the elections within the timetable indicated.

Australia even wanted the election to be brought forward to November this year and stands ready to provide the additional assistance necessary recommended by technical experts so money would not be an excuse to delay plans for an early return to the polls.

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, who was sceptical, said the first quarter of 2009 was the latest possible date recommended by the Joint Fiji-Forum Working Group.

She said though there was still plenty of time for Commodore Bainimarama to make excuses, she saw no evidence he really wanted to give up power.

How right was that prediction because this week the interim regime says that unless people adopt the People's Charter there will be no elections next year.

Commodore Bainimarama is adamant Fiji would only go to the polls once the charter is in place because it was a platform to chart the way forward while Mr Qarase disagreed saying elections should decide the future for this country.

"With regards to elections, we cannot proceed and Qarase knows very well we have told everyone that the government cannot conduct a general election without a platform from where we can map and chart our way forward," said Commodore Bainimarama.

He said the charter was meant to keep people like Mr Qarase from "lying in the future".

Yet an academic has warned that linking the charter to the election can be problematic, especially since the charter was still being debated with some strong opposition against it.

"This will escalate the contradictions and may not be good for post-election stability," said University of the South Pacific academic Dr Steven Ratuva.

He recommends the best way forward at the moment is to initiate dialogue between the major political leaders instead of pushing a controversial charter across.

Dr Ratuva said Bainimarama and Qarase needed to come together and meet as individuals without conditions then decide on a time for further talks with an agenda agreed before hand.

He says one of the items on the agenda should be the charter. "They can then discuss their commonalties and differences relating to the charter in a mutually engaging way.

"They should identify areas of consensus and also incorporate other stakeholders into the process," he said.

Dr Ratuva said at the moment the strategy adopted by the regime in imposing the charter and Mr Qarase in opposing it was wrong.

"They are both acting like Tom and Jerry, the perpetually antagonistic cartoon characters.

"If we do not iron out our differences before the election, these differences are bound to re-emerge after the election and we are destined to repeat history," he said.

The interim Government is intent on implementing a charter that will supposedly lay the ground work on how it will deal with six important issues including good governance, the economy, reforming the civil service, reforming the financial sector, land and social as well as community sectors.

While the charter is similar to a party manifesto it differs as the interim administration has full use of state resources and public funds to develop as well as implement what it chooses when it wants to.

The charter requires the interim Government to establish a National Council for Building a Better Fiji comprising of 40 members that would be chaired by Bainimarama and the head of the Catholic Church in Fiji Archbishop Petero Mataca.

Under it six task teams will be tasked with focusing on the six issues.

The deadline is October meaning there is little time to implement the recommendations of the charter if the interim Prime Minister and his Cabinet is serious about having a general election next March.

At the same time the interim Government desperately needs support for the charter from all organisations, political parties, the business sector, civil societies, the vanua and the churches to implement their policies.

Interestingly last July it did not invite the National Federation Party to participate and Mr Qarase who leads the largest supported Fijian political party was labelled insignificant to progress in this newly initiated move for the country's progress.

But just typical of Commodore Bainimarama, yesterday he called on Mr Qarase to stop criticising the interim Government and contribute to the charter to build a better Fiji for all.

He questioned why Mr Qarase refused to contribute to a charter endorsed by the President Ratu Josefa Iloilo who supported the ousting of the SDL government two years ago.

Today it is crystal clear that the six issues to be dealt with through the charter will take a lot of time, money and consultation if the voices of the ordinary people that make up Fiji are to be heard.

The land issue and its accessibility calls for tactful handling, diplomacy and wide consultation as all resources owners who own it collectively or individually need to be consulted.

The reform within the civil service is a worry for workers that remain with a four per cent reduction in pay after the restoration of one per cent in December from the five per cent pay cut they faced because of the coup they were not responsible for.

That is why many are saying that if the interim government is serious about taking Fiji forward it should leave the charter out and focus on having a legitimate government by March next year.

If an elected government then wants to implement the charter it would at least have the people's mandate otherwise all these charter calls will be a waste of money that at the end of it all is paid by taxpayers of this country.

It could otherwise be the basis for a manifesto of a political party formed by those in the interim regime in the next election to measure and prove their popularity among the people.

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