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Politics of Fiji

In Fiji, the president (head of state) is appointed for a 5-year term by the Great Council of Chiefs, a traditional ethnic Fijian leadership body. The president in turn appoints the prime minister (head of government) and cabinet from among the members of parliament. Both houses of the legislature have seats reserved by ethnicity. The Senate is appointed; the House of Representatives is elected.

Fiji maintains an independent judiciary consisting of a Supreme Court, a Court of Appeals, a High Court, and magistrate courts. The judiciary remained independent through the coups and the consequent absence of an elected government.

There are four administrative divisions (central, eastern, northern and western), each under the charge of a commissioner. Ethnic Fijians have their own administration in which councils preside over a hierarchy of provinces, districts, and villages. The councils deal with all matters affecting ethnic Fijians. The Great Council of Chiefs (Bose Levu Vakaturaga) contains every hereditary chief, or Ratu, of a Matagali, or Fijian clan.

Political conditions

In April 1970, a constitutional conference in London agreed that Fiji should become a fully sovereign and independent nation within the Commonwealth. Fiji became independent on October 10, 1970.

Post-independence politics came to be dominated by the Alliance Party of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara and the Alliance Party, which commanded the support of the traditional Fijian chiefs, along with leading elements of the European, part-European, and Indian communities. The main parliamentary opposition, the National Federation Party, represented mainly rural Indo-Fijians. Intercommunal relations were managed without serious confrontation. The Indian-led National Federation Party won a narrow majority of House seats in 1977, but failed to form a government due to internal leadership problems, as well as concerns among some of its members that indigenous Fijians would not accept Indo-Fijian leadership. A second election to resolve the impasse was held later that year. Mara's Alliance Party was returned with a record majority of 36 parliamentary seats out of 52.

The majority of the Alliance Party was reduced in the election of 1982, but with 28 seats out of 52, Mara retained power. In April 1987, however, a coalition led by Dr. Timoci Bavadra, an ethnic Fijian who was nevertheless supported mostly by the Indo-Fijian community, won the general election and formed Fiji's first majority Indian government, with Dr. Bavadra serving as Prime Minister. Less than a month later, Dr. Bavadra was forcibly removed from power during a military coup led by Lt. Col. Sitiveni Rabuka on May 14, 1987.

After a period of continued jockeying and negotiation, Rabuka staged a second coup on September 25, 1987. The military government revoked the constitution and declared Fiji a republic on October 10. This action, coupled with protests by the government of India, led to Fiji's expulsion from the Commonwealth and official nonrecognition of the Rabuka regime by foreign governments, including Australia and New Zealand. On December 6, Rabuka resigned as head of state and Governor-General Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau was appointed the first President of the Fijian Republic. Mara was reappointed Prime Minister, and Rabuka became Minister of Home Affairs.

The new government drafted a new constitution that went into force in July 1990. Under its terms, majorities were reserved for ethnic Fijians in both houses of the legislature. Previously, in 1989, the government had released statistical information showing that for the first time since 1946, ethnic Fijians were a majority of the population. More than 12,000 Indo-Fijians and other minorities had left the country in the two years following the 1987 coups. After resigning from the military, Rabuka became Prime Minister under the new constitution in 1993.

Ethnic tensions simmered in 1995-1996 over the renewal of Indo-Fijian land leases and political maneuvering surrounding the mandated 7-year review of the 1990 constitution. The Constitutional Review Commission produced a draft constitution which expanded the size of the legislature, lowered the proportion of seats reserved by ethnic group, reserved the presidency for ethnic Fijians but opened the position of prime minister to all races. Prime Minister Rabuka and President Mara supported the proposal, while the nationalist indigenous Fijian parties opposed it. The reformed constitution was approved in July 1997. Fiji was readmitted to the Commonwealth in October.

The first legislative elections held under the new constitution took place in May 1999. Rabuka's coalition was defeated by Indo-Fijian parties led by Mahendra Chaudhry, who became Fiji's first Indo-Fijian prime minister. One year later, in May 2000, Chaudhry and most other members of parliament were taken hostage in the House of Representatives by gunmen led by ethnic Fijian nationalist George Speight. The standoff dragged on for 8 weeks--during which time Chaudhry was removed from office by the then-president due to his incapacitation -- before the Fijian military seized power and brokered a negotiated end to the situation, then arrested Speight when he violated its terms. Former banker Laisenia Qarase was named interim Prime Minister and head of the interim civilian government by the military and the Great Council of Chiefs in July. A court order restored the constitution early in 2001, and a subsequent election confirmed Qarase as Prime Minister.

One of the main issues that has fuelled the contention over the years is land tenure. Indigenous Fijian communities very closely identify themselves with their land. In 1909 near the peak of the inflow of indentured Indian laborers, the land ownership pattern was frozen and further sales prohibited. Today over 80% of the land is held by indigenous Fijians, under the collective ownership of the traditional Fijian clans. Indo-Fijians produce over 90% of the sugar crop but must lease the land they work from its ethnic Fijian owners instead of being able to buy it outright. The leases have been generally for 10 years, although they are usually renewed for two 10-year extensions. Many Indo-Fijians argue that these terms do not provide them with adequate security and have pressed for renewable 30-year leases, while many ethnic Fijians fear that an Indo-Fijian government would erode their control over the land.

The Indo-Fijian parties' major voting bloc is made up of sugarcane farmers. The farmers' main tool of influence has been their ability to galvanize widespread boycotts of the sugar industry, thereby crippling the economy.

Prior to the 1987 coups, Fiji was often cited as a model of human rights and multiracial democracy. Despite the difficulties that have arisen in the decade and a half since then, Fiji has maintained at least a certain degree of restraint.