Fiji ruler: Court tried to force elections

Fiji’s military ruler said today the country’s president had overthrown the constitution because appeal court judges tried to “force” the nation into elections under the old race-based voting system.

Commodore Frank Bainimarama, reappointed prime minister at the weekend after the Court of Appeal ruled his 2006 coup and government were illegal and new elections should be called, said the three judges had written a “52 page judgment in 24 hours. It was obvious they made that decision long before they got to Fiji”.

“It was quite clear that all they wanted was to force us to go into elections which we didn’t want under the old system,” he told New Zealand’s National Radio.

Some “64% of the people want electoral reforms as opposed to the old electoral system ... based on race. They want to move away from that to go to elections with electoral reforms”, he said in his first interview with foreign media since the upheaval began.

Mr Bainimarama insists his rule is legitimate and that he will hold elections to restore democracy after he rewrites the constitution and electoral laws to remove what he says is racial discrimination against a large ethnic Indian minority.

Under the now-revoked constitution, Fiji voters had cast their ballots on communal lines, with indigenous Fijians, ethnic Indians and “others” voting for separate candidates to represent them in the parliament – closed by the military regime in December 2006.

Fears by indigenous Fijians, 55% of the population, that Indian Fijians imported as sugar cane workers in the 19th century by colonial ruler Britain wielded economic and business control of the islands’ nation sparked two coups in 1987 and a third in 2000.

Mr Bainimarama, a chiefly ranked indigenous Fijian, insists that all Fiji citizens are equal and has consistently attacked what he calls “racist” laws and policies implemented by the indigenous Fijian-backed government he ousted from power.

He said he had imposed national emergency controls on the media and political opponents so reforms could be implemented.

“We want to do these changes, these reforms, the last thing we want is opposition to these reforms throughout,” he said.

“We will now decide what is going to be done, we will put these reforms in place so we have a better Fiji.”

Asked when media restrictions will be lifted, he said: “Possibly in a month, but we will see.”

As the political and economic crisis gripping the South Pacific nation deepened, Fiji’s central bank slapped tough new exchange controls on the economy to prevent money from flowing out of the country.

The tourism and sugar export-dependent economy has stalled since Mr Bainimarama seized power, with its international credit rating downgraded last month from stable to negative.

Some top officials have also lost their posts, with the governor of the Reserve Bank, the human rights commissioner and government prosecutors absent from their offices yesterday after they received letters from the president’s office telling them their positions had been annulled.

In the latest crackdown, foreign journalists have been expelled, censors posted in media offices and police checkpoints set up in the capital Suva. The streets have stayed peaceful.

International critics said the latest upheaval would leave Fiji even more isolated.

Australia said it was almost inevitable that Fiji would be expelled from the Commonwealth group of nations and the South Pacific’s trade and diplomatic bloc because of the political turmoil.

“Unless there is some dramatic turnaround, which we haven’t seen, from Commodore Bainimarama, in my view it is almost inevitable that Fiji will be suspended from the forums of both the Pacific Island Forum and the Commonwealth itself,” Australian foreign minister Stephen Smith said.

Responding to the warnings, Mr Bainimarama said his government was working toward holding elections by September 2014.

“We want to be part of the (South Pacific) Forum, we want to be part of the Commonwealth, but if the Commonwealth and the Forum decide to remove us, what can you do?,” he said.

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