Sunday, March 16, 2008

The end is at hand

The end is at hand-www.fijidailypost.com
15-Mar-2008

The question is where to from now for Mr Clean? Will it be business as usual back at Ro Lalabalavu House come Monday? If that is the case? I wonder how long Mr Clean will last in the interim cabinet. I also wonder whether Bainimarama will continue to use Chaudhry as a honeymoon partner in spite of the voluminous chorus of public protest about their marriage of convenience.



I DID tell you last week that interim Finance Minister Mahendra Chaudhry will come out unscathed over allegations of tax evasion.

Although the circumstances surrounding Chaudhry’s name being cleared is questionable, the fact remains that the political maharaja of the Indian community has been declared a “Mr Clean” by the panel of three investigators that looked at his tax files.

The question is where to from now for Mr Clean? Will it be business as usual back at Ro Lalabalavu House come Monday? If that is the case? I wonder how long Mr Clean will last in the interim cabinet. I also wonder whether Bainimarama will continue to use Chaudhry as a honeymoon partner in spite of the voluminous chorus of public protest about their marriage of convenience.

I have a strong feeling that we are now witnessing the end of a political career spanning over several decades - yet riddled with controversy. In fact Chaudhry is now the longest active politician serving the county at the moment.

Bainimarama is but a political chicken compared with Chaudhry. In fact the popular belief among the public is that while Bainimarama is the captain of the interim ship; Chaudhry, as first mate, is calling all the shots. In fact he is the man running government.

He seems to have tremendous influence over Bainimarama. And that influence is translated into the many policies and new initiatives the interim government has come up with since Bainimarama overthrew Qarase’s multiparty Government on December 5, 2006.

Notice how the Interim Government is targeting traditional indigenous institutions for reforms – institutions like the Native Land Trust Board, the Great Council of Chiefs, the Native Lands Commission, and the issuance of indigenous scholarships and so on.

These reforms will have the effect of weakening the structure of these indigenous institutions to allow far greater accessibility by non-indigenous communities to things like native lands.

Chaudhry and the Fiji Labor Party (FLP) have always argued that native lands be opened up to all migrant races for better utilisation. He argues that this move would give landowners a steady flow of income via lease payments.

But that is Chaudhry, a leader that will settle for nothing less for his people. Like Shylock he will fight tooth and nail for his ‘pound of flash.’ Love him or hate him, Chaudhry is a unique political creature. He is a colorful politician who keeps politicians, civil servants and the public sector on their toes. It would be a pity to see him go. The political scenario will not be the same without Mr Clean.

Well, so much for the maharaja. During this past week, there has also been intense political scrumaging behind the scenes perhaps not quite visible to many.

Sir Paul Reeves was here on behalf of the Commonwealth Secretariat in London to help find a solution to our political stalemate. Sir Paul of course is no stranger to Fiji politics being the main architect of the 1997 Constitution.

On his recent trip, Sir Paul had talks with the interim Prime Minister, ousted PM Laisenia Qarase and his SDL party, and other political stakeholders.

He tried to broker a meeting between Bainimarama and Qarase. The two were scheduled to meet on a one-on-one basis to sort out the current impasse. Unfortunately a few hours before the scheduled meeting the Prime Minister’s Office cancelled the meeting. No reason was given for the cancellation.

I thought that was a wasted opportunity that could have been opened to allow the country to really move forward. However, that was not to be the case.

That brings me to the current case being heard at the High Court where Qarase and the SDL Party are challenging the legality of the Interim Government.

The case is rather unusual in the sense that the defendants Bainimarama, the RFMF and the President have not filed any affidavits nor will they give evidence. Even the plaintiffs’ evidence has been rather limited. In fact only two of the many potential plaintiffs gave evidence.

The challenge has been turned into a royal legal battle between three QCs – Nye Perram for the plaintiffs, and Gerard McCoy and others representing the state.

In a nut shell, Qarase’s QC is arguing that Bainimarama did not have the constitutional powers to remove the government nor does he have the power to appoint himself President and appoint an interim Prime Minister.

He is also arguing that when Bainimarama reinstated the President on January 5, 2007 the President, Ratu Josefa Iloilo, does not have the power to dissolve parliament, nor does he has the power to appoint Bainimarama as Interim Prime Minister nor the power to appoint an Interim Cabinet and its Ministers.

The State, however, through QC McCoy is arguing that the President has reserved powers under the constitution to carry out what he did.

Judging from the legal debate that is going on in the High Court which way the three judges opinion will go will be very interesting indeed. I have my own views but it would be premature to voice it now because the case is still in progress.

However, it would be interesting to see whether the State will accept the court’s verdict if it went against it.

If the judges rule that neither Bainimarama nor the President have the powers to appoint the Interim Government will the State concede and allow the status quo to stand?

If the State will not accept the judges verdict will the allegedly ‘pseudo’ Attorney-General dismiss the judiciary?

Whatever happens, it will mean another major clean up by the incoming elected government.

If the court rejects Qarase’s arguments what kind of reaction will Fiji face from the international community? Will the independence of the judiciary be questioned?

These are searching questions indeed. That is why I said Bainimarama had lost a golden opportunity to put matters right once and for all when he turned his back on Sir Paul’s initiative.

If he had met with Qarase and worked out a legal and constitutional solution to the impasse the country would see the recall of parliament, the resignation of the Prime Minister and the appointment of a caretaker government to take us through to the next general election.

Whichever way Bainimarama moves he will find that he is being boxed into a corner by his own doing. I think the writing is on the wall that the end is near.

Beware the ides of March!

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