Thursday, January 19, 2012

Commodore's Foot still on Fiji's Throat

Dominion Post Editorial

Dictator Bainimarama
OPINION: The lifting of emergency powers in Fiji gives some hope that troubled nation is at last on the path back to democracy. There is a long way to go, however, before coup leader Voreqe Bainimarama's promise of free and open elections by 2014 becomes a reality. 

More than five years have passed since Commodore Bainimarama overthrew the government of Laisenia Qarase, claiming it was riddled with corruption and promising to quickly reform the voting system and restore democracy. In the years since then, he has shown little inclination to relinquish control. In 2007, he promised the Pacific Islands Forum that elections would be held by March 2009, but he soon reneged on the deal and set the present deadline, which could hold Fiji under military rule for at least another two years. 

In common with other dictators, Commodore Bainimarama's comments on the lifting of emergency powers last week were a study in the myth-making and obfuscation often employed by those who have seized power at gunpoint and who seek to rewrite history. He claimed the draconian powers he prescribed in 2009  which suppressed free speech and political debate, heavily censored the news media and restricted public gatherings  were needed to head off Fiji's imminent descent into anarchy, racial and religious infighting and terrorism. 

The truth is quite different. The powers were in fact put in place by the commodore to stamp out criticism and dissent after he and his cronies refused to accept a ruling by Fiji's Appeal Court that the December 2006 coup was illegal. Then-president Ratu Josefa Iloilo  a key Bainimarama ally  refused to abide by the ruling that a new interim government be appointed and elections scheduled, and instead scrapped the 1997 constitution, sacked the judiciary and reappointed the commodore as prime minister. 

Commodore Bainimarama seeks to present the emergency powers as necessary to preserve peace and stability. In fact, they were put in place to allow his regime to crush the very rule of law he claims to uphold. 

His attempt to brush over the truth aside, the lifting of the emergency powers is nevertheless an important step towards meeting the 2014 deadline for elections. The next step  and the next indication of whether the commodore is serious about meeting the deadline  will be the national consultation on a new constitution and voting system, which he is promising will begin next month. 

That discussion will be crucial in the path towards democracy, and it is important it is completely transparent and free from political interference. The commodore has already ruled that any new electoral system will be one vote per person, with no weighting for ethnicity, and universal suffrage for those aged 18 and over. Few would argue against those principles, but that is the last say the commodore should have in the matter.

He must show that on this point, at least, he is true to his word and that the system under which Fiji will be governed in future is one agreed by all Fijians, not one laid down by a military dictator.
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