Promised elections to restore democracy to Fiji after this week’s coup could be more than two years away, the military-installed prime minister said today.
The comments by military medic Dr Jona Senilagakali – who said he only took the job of prime minister because he was ordered to do so by his commanding officer – came as Fiji’s powerful tribal chiefs refused to recognise the new regime.
The chiefs’ criticism of Commander Frank Bainimarama’s takeover on Tuesday is important because of their huge influence among the Fiji’s politically dominant indigenous majority.
Bainimarama continued a clean-out of the civil service today, announcing that the elections commissioner and the chief of the Public Service Commission had been fired, as well as parliamentary officials and other senior bureaucrats.
He said the sackings were part of a campaign to weed out corruption he alleged was rife under ousted Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase – one of several reasons Bainimarama has given for the takeover.
Bainimarama has said a military council will rule until he can appoint an interim government that will eventually call elections to restore democracy.
Senilagakali, who is Bainimarama’s only Cabinet appointment so far, said the timing of the elections would “totally be up to the military president” and his advisers.
“That could be tomorrow, that could be next week, it could be in the next two years or more,” he said. “Hopefully in 12 months, two years, we’ll be able to have a general election.”
Contradicting his leader’s claims to working within the Constitution, Senilagakali said: “There’s no doubt about it, it’s an illegal takeover.
“It is an illegal takeover to clean up the mess of a much bigger illegal activity of the previous government,” he said, blaming Qarase for stirring hatred within Fijian society by putting “too much emphasis on indigenous Fijian interests”.
The coup – Fiji’s fourth in nearly two decades – was the culmination of a long impasse between Bainimarama and Qarase over bills offering pardons to conspirators in a 2000 coup and handing lucrative coastal land ownership to indigenous Fijians.
Bainimarama on Tuesday announced he had assumed presidential powers and dismissed the government. The following day he declared a state of emergency and dissolved Parliament, sending troops to kick senators out of the chamber.
He threw up a security cordon around the capital, Suva, and warned he would use force to quickly put down any dissent.
He removed Vice President Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi from his office and official residence late yesterday, which attracted the ire of the Great Council of Chiefs, which under the Constitution appoints the president and vice president on the advice of the elected government.
“Ratu Joni’s removal from office is illegal, unconstitutional and most disrespectful,” Council Chairman Ratu Ovini Bokini told news network Radio Legend. The council still recognises Ratu Josefa Iloilo as president, he said.
The criticism leaves Bainimarama increasingly isolated, with no significant group in Fiji expressing even tacit public support for Tuesday’s takeover.
The chief’s council cancelled a meeting planned for next week. Bainimarama had hoped the chiefs would restore Iloilo as president and endorse his caretaker government.
During previous coups in 2000 and 1987, the chiefs carefully avoided strong criticism of the plotters because they claimed to be defending the rights of indigenous Fijians over the ethnic Indian minority. Bainimarama claims to be acting for all Fijians.
Bainimarama said senior bureaucrats had been questioned by the military about “their intentions” and invited people interested in joining his administration to apply through advertisements to be published in newspapers today.
He insisted he was acting for the good of Fiji.
“We do not deny that democracy is good for the people,” Bainimarama said. “But democracy must not be used to hide corruption.”
UN Human Rights Commissioner Louise Arbour said the coup raised “serious concerns” about abuses, and urged the regime to guarantee Fijians’ freedoms and obey international law.
Qarase, who left the capital on the military’s orders, maintains he still is Fiji’s legal prime minister.