Thursday, August 21, 2008

Political wilderness

Political wilderness
KAMAL IYER - Thursday, August 21, 2008

The NFP in Parliament in 1998, front from left - Jai Ram Reddy, Harish Sharma, James Raman, Narendra Singh Arjun, Dr Wadan Narsey, Harnam Singh Golian and Satish Gulabdas. Back from left - Ali Hussein and Sayed Khaiyum

"Don't play politics with the future of Indians", was the warning given to the National Federation Party by the leader of the Fiji Labour Party during campaigning for the 1992 general elections.

The warning was repeated in meeting after meeting by Mahendra Pal Chaudhry and his candidates as they appealed to the Indo-Fijian electorate to vote for Labour and its "principled" policy of boycotting the 27 Indian Communal seats in Parliament under the feudalistic 1990 Constitution. The warning was given by Mr Chaudhry after the NFP decided that its sole objective of contesting the 1992 elections was to get into Parliament and initiate dialogue to change the 1990 Constitution and secure political equality for the Indian community.Of course Mr Chaudhry's warning and FLP's "principled boycott stand" proved to be a faade as the boycott rhetoric changed immediately to running inside the newly constructed House of Representatives at Veiuto as soon as its doors opened, after having backed Sitiveni Rabuka to become Prime Minister. The rest is history - five years of dialogue, negotiation and consensus building achieved an internationally acclaimed Constitution - a Constitution achieved by the NFP and its leader who rightfully treated Mr Chaudhry's warning as a senseless bark.
And how ironical that the person who warned the NFP not to sacrifice the future of Indians in 1992 was the biggest beneficiary of that party's achievement by becoming Fiji's first Indian Prime Minister!
However, 16 years later, a warning to the FLP and Mr Chaudhry not to play politics with the future of Indians by some personalities in the Indian community is appropriate in the context of the electoral reforms proposed in the draft People's Charter by the National Council for Building a Better Fiji in which Mr Chaudhry and his party played a prominent role in the Charter's formulation.
Pillar One of the draft Charter proposes to abolish Communal seats, introduce a common roll, replace the Alternative Voting System with Proportional Representation, introduce a Party List System, re-configure boundaries to five large Open Constituencies, remove the electoral system from the Constitution and enact it as a Regulation so that it is open to amendments by successive governments and remove the mandatory power sharing arrangement as provided for under Section 99(5) of the Constitution.
While it is felt that electoral reforms are necessary, especially changes to the voting system to allow for fairer parliamentary representation of all Fiji's people in terms of rapidly changing population trends, such changes must only come about after the elections with an elected Parliament.
Electoral reforms by itself will not bring about racial harmony or end the coup culture. Racial harmony has to be cultivated and nurtured as contained in the 1997 Constitution, the spirit of which wasn't followed since 1999, except for six months after May 2006 elections when a genuine multi-party government of SDL and Labour was formed.
What the Charter is proposing is based on Reverend David Arm's paper, which was reported by the media a few months ago. If the reforms and boundaries are drawn based on David Arms' paper, then Indians and minorities should prepare to be called third class citizens. It is worse than the 1990 Constitution. At best, based on a 71-member parliament Indians will win 25 seats while Fijians will win 46 seats. And with no power sharing as proposed by the Charter what will be the political future of Indians and Minorities?
As far as proportionate voting goes, this would be the logical way forward, but must be done by the mandated representatives of the people elected legally under the Constitution.
The initial census figures showed Fijians at over 57% of the population and Indians 38% (and declining daily), with the rest being Minorities and other races. That is why the seats were entrenched by NFP in 1997. But proportional representation on common roll voting based on four or five divisions as per the draft Charter is political suicide.
And we have seen that common roll- based on first past the post system is unworkable in municipal elections. In the past two elections - 2002 and 2005 - voting happened on communal lines. Fijian populated wards like Tamavua and Muanikau in Suva City were won by SDL while the Central Ward was won by Indians. The same story goes for other towns and city councils in Fiji. This is the unmistakable reality. Fiji is a leader driven country. And the people behave like their leaders. Fiji today needs a leader who can cut across racial boundaries.
Unfortunately, the last two mandated leaders of their respective communities fail miserably in this regard.
The claim that the draft Charter will eradicate the coup culture is laughable. If anything, the proposal to enact electoral provisions as a Regulation to enable successive governments to change it from time to time is a catalyst for an endless cycle of coups. The will of the people required to change the electoral system as proposed in the draft Charter will be treated like dirt, given Fiji's experience of the past 21 years. And with a lop-sided parliament, changes will be made to the whims of a few because there will not be any safeguards or guarantees protecting the rights of any minority community.
The proposal to remove mandatory power sharing from the Constitution is like imposing another Girmit. Since Independence, the concern of Indian leaders has been fair representation in Cabinet - the highest level of decision making of any Government. Indians in Cabinet under the 1970 Constitution were appointed as ministers as an act of tokenism. In a Multi-Party Cabinet, ministers are appointed because it is their right to be in Cabinet, whether it be Fijians, Indians or General Electors.
Any party with 10% or more seats in the Lower House must be invited to be in Cabinet and their representation is to be in proportion to the size of their party in Parliament.
What the draft Charter is proposing will confine Indians and Minorities to opposition benches in parliament in perpetuity.
So how will this scenario achieve other ambitious goals of eradicating poverty, expanding the economy, reviving the sugar industry and agricultural sector, etc, when a significant portion of the population is politically alienated and disenfranchised in the land of their birth?
This is a very important question that the promoters of the draft Charter have to answer - especially politicians who have fully participated and helped formulate a document that threatens to devour all political rights, dignity and justice of a segment of population who have undeniably been the engine room of Fiji's economy in our nation's triumphant and tragic days.

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