Fiji: May Elections and the New Government

Current Issues Brief 17 1998-99

Michael Ong
Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Group
29 June 1999


Major Issues
Geography, Population and Recent History

The 1987 Coup
The New Constitution

Background to the 1999 Election
Parties, Campaign and Issues
Formation of the New Government


ALTA: The Agricultural Landlord and Tenant Act (1976) sets out the terms and conditions for the lease of indigenous lands to leasers who are mostly Indo-Fijians. The expiry of existing leases began in 1997 and this (in terms of renewal or non-renewal of leases, period of new leases and quantum of rent) has caused tensions between the indigenous Fijian owners and the Indo-Fijians.

BLV: Bose Levu Vakaturaga. The Great Council of Chiefs was established under British rule to represent indigenous Fijians. It now has powers, in consultation with the Prime Minister, to appoint the President of the country.

COIN: Coalition of Independent Nationalist. Formed by six independents and led by Prince Vyas Muni Lakshman, who opposed political parties because they divide and rule.

FAP: Fijian Association Party. Indigenous Fijian party formed after split within SVT (see below) in 1994 as a result of disagreements over the budget. It was led by the late Josevata Kamikamica, who was deputy Prime Minister before the split and since August 1998, led by Adi Kuini Speed, wife of deposed Prime Minister Bavadra. The FAP joined the government in March 1996. The party has strong support in the Lau groups of islands. The FAP joined the opposition 'People's Coalition' to contest the elections.

FLP: Fiji Labour Party. Multiracial party formed by the late Dr Timoci Bavadra, a chief from western Fiji, and its current leader, Mahendra Chaudhry, a trade unionist, after they left the NFP in 1985. The party won government, with the support of the NFP in April 1987, but was overthrown by the military coup. Major support is from working class Indo-Fijians and until 1987, indigenous Fijians from western Fiji.

NFP: National Federation Party. Initially launched as a multiracial party in 1963, but is dominated and supported by Indo-Fijians and led by Jai Ram Reddy, a lawyer and until the May 1999 elections, Leader of the Opposition. The NFP joined the SVT and General Voters Party to jointly contest the elections. Its original base of Indo-Fijian cane farmers, since 1985, has eroded.

NVTLP: Nationalist Vanua Tako Lavo Party: This party is the result of a merger between two extreme nationalist indigenous Fijian parties, the Vanua Tako Lavo Party and the Fijian Nationalist Party and is led by Sakeasi Butadroka, who opposed the new constitution and campaigned for a 'Fiji for the Fijians'.

PANU: Party of National Unity. A new indigenous Fijian party based in the Ba Province and led by Ratu Sairusi Gagavoka, high chief of Ba.

SVT: Soqosoqo ni Vakavulewa ni Taukei. Formed in 1991, to represent indigenous Fijian interests, by the Great Council of Chiefs in 1991 to contest the 1992 elections. Led by Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka, a commoner and leader of the 1987 coup. The party split in 1994 and those who left formed the Fijian Association Party.

UGP: United General Party. The party represents the non-indigenous and non-Indo-Fijian communities. It was a merger of the former General Electors Party and General Voters Party and is led by David Pickering, who was Minister of Tourism before the elections.

VLV: Veitokan ni Lewenivanua Vakaristo. The Christian Democratic Alliance is a new party formed in 1997 but registered only in 1999. Dominated by indigenous Fijians and led by Rev Ratu Josaia Rayawa. Seen as the main rival for SVT.

The Fiji Islands

The Fiji Islands

Source: Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID)

Major Issues

In 1987 South Pacific politics was changed forever when Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka carried out two coups in Fiji to restore indigenous Fijian dominance of Fiji politics. Dr Timoci Bavadra and his Fiji Labour Party and Indian dominated cabinet was ousted from office and steps taken, including a new constitution in 1990, to ensure the subservience of the Indo-Fijian community to the Fijian majority. Results included the flight of capital and talent, exclusion from the Commonwealth and a drop in the tourist trade, a key bastion of the Fijian economy.

In 1993 Sitiveni Rabuka initiated the mandated constitutional review and between 8 and 15 May 1999, Fiji went to the polls to elect a 71-member parliament under a new 1997 multiracial constitution, which guarantees multi-party government. Unlike the past system of 'first past the post', the preferential or 'alternate vote' system was employed.

Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka's ruling coalition was joined by the leading opposition National Federation Party to contest the elections. It was challenged by an opposition People's Coalition led by Mr Mahendra Chaudhry from the Fiji Labour Party which, while multiracial, is dominated by Indo-Fijians, and two indigenous Fijian parties, the Fijian Association Party and the Party of National Unity. Observers had expected Rabuka's coalition to be returned.

The election results were a complete surprise with the Fiji Labour Party winning 37 out of 71 seats and thus able to form a new government on its own. Chaudhry, after initial tensions with his coalition partners and the positive intervention of the President, has since been appointed the new Prime Minister with two indigenous Fijians as his deputies. His Cabinet is also dominated by indigenous Fijians. Given that the election results were seen as a replica of the 1987 elections, which resulted in a military coup, security was tightened. There were some minor politically inspired incidents and vocal opposition to the new government after the elections. The opposition was led by those who support a 'Fiji for Fijians' approach, the extreme nationalists; they won only one seat. Their opposition is likely to continue.

Interestingly, while the ruling coalition campaigned on its success in delivering a new multiracial constitution and emphasised the future benefits of its macroeconomic policies, the People's Coalition concentrated on the 'bread and butter' issues, the adverse impact of government policies and record of stewardship on the electorate. The economy thus appears to have been as much at the heart of this election as the constitution.

The peaceful changeover of government augurs well for Fiji. The new Prime Minister has assured the Great Council of Chiefs that he and his government will protect the interests of indigenous Fijians and has promised to be 'servants to all the people'. He faces several challenges including the sensitive issue of land leases between indigenous owners and Indo-Fijians leasers, an economy affected by recent natural disasters and electoral promises that may be difficult to keep.


Fiji went to the polls between 8 and 15 May to elect a new parliament. It was the first election to be held under the new 1997 multiracial constitution (in force from July 1998) which had been negotiated by the major parties. Contrary to expectations, the elections resulted in a new government. This paper provides the recent history and background to the elections and the campaign and analyses the implications of the results for Fiji.

Geography, Population and Recent History

Fiji, a Pacific Island state of more than 320 islands, has a population of 802 000 (est. 1998) people including those living on Rotuma, a small island, north of the archipelago whose people are culturally different from indigenous Fijians. Fiji's plural society is made up of 51 per cent indigenous Fijians, who are Christians of various denominations (mainly Methodists), 43 per cent Hindu and Muslim Indians (who are descendants of labourers brought in during British colonial rule) and the rest consisting of Europeans, Chinese, other islanders and mixed races. With 14 provinces, regional loyalties and rivalries remain strong among indigenous Fijians.

The territory was ceded to Britain in 1874. Under colonial rule, the solution to the shortage of labour for the sugar cane industries was to import indentured labourers from India and thus a racially diverse society came into being. The communities were segregated under colonial rule with the indigenous Fijians engaged in subsistence agriculture and some production of food for urban and plantation consumption. Indigenous Fijians were generally restricted from commerce and entry into wage labour, though after the 1930s many worked in the gold mines and the stevedoring industries. Economic development also drew indigenous Fijians to the urban areas. Indo-Fijians were restricted to work in the sugar cane plantations and forbidden to live in Fijian villages. Many remained after their contracts ended and, leasing land from indigenous Fijians, became cane farmers. Some became petty traders and eventually joined the various professions.

Independence was granted in 1970 and influenced by the Malaysian example, Fiji was ruled for many years by the moderate and elitist Alliance Party. This was a coalition of three parties representing the main communities and led by Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, a traditional Fijian Ratu (Chief) and Prime Minister. The Government also had the strong backing of traditional chiefs cultivated by the British.

From the 1980s, the dominance of the Alliance was increasingly challenged from two fronts. On one side, the Alliance Government faced opposition from extremist nationalist indigenous Fijians ('Fiji for the Fijians') led by Sakiasi Butadroka, an expelled member of SVT, who formed the Fijian Nationalist Party (FNP), and on the other by those who sought to build a popularly based multiracial society. As a result of regional rivalries among the Ratus, their influence, coupled with the development of an increasing urbanised indigenous Fijian community, declined.(1)

The 1987 Coup

In the April 1987 elections, Fiji voted for a new government led by Dr Timoci Bavadra (a traditional leader from western Fiji, where the country's gold mining industry is based) of the multiracial Fijian Labour Party (FLP). Though an indigenous Fijian, Bavadra's coalition with the National Federation Party (NFP), which is supported by Indo-Fijians, was seen by indigenous Fijians to be dominated by Indo-Fijians. There were fears, raised by extremist Fijian nationalists, for the future of the indigenous Fijians. They formed the Taukei Movement to oppose the new government. Bavadra's month-old government was overthrown by a military coup led by (then) Lt-Col Sitiveni Rabuka on 14 May.(2) As the result of the failure to obtain agreement for the 'minimum demands' to ensure Fijian paramountcy, Rabuka conducted another coup in September 1987 and proclaimed Fiji a republic on 7 October 1987.(3) Fiji also ceased to be a member of the Commonwealth.

A new constitution to ensure the dominance, if not entrenchment, of the position of indigenous Fijians in the polity was promulgated in 1990. This was patterned on the successful pro-Malay bumiputra (princes of the soil) policies in Malaysia. Apart from strengthening the role of indigenous Fijians, it also included, for the first time, constitutional recognition of the Bose Levu Vakaturaga (BLV), the Great Council of Chiefs (established under colonial rule). The Council was empowered to appoint the President, who is also the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, for a five-year term. Fiji's first Prime Minister (and current President) Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara defended the constitution as 'merely an extension of a format, which has already been endorsed, and, an enlargement of an idea, which has become an established part of power sharing arrangement'.(4) However, the Constitution was assumed to be 'a temporary solution to a troubled situation',(5) and included a provision for a review to be held within seven years (by July 1997).

With impending elections, the BLV sponsored a new party, Soqosoqo ni Vakavulewa ni Taukei (SVT), to unite indigenous Fijians in 1991. Surprisingly and contrary to expectations, Prime Minister Rabuka, a commoner, was elected leader. The opposition parties, though opposed to the new constitution on racial and democratic grounds, agreed reluctantly to contest elections under it. Two elections, in 1992 and 1994, were held. In 1992, the SVT ruled with the support of other Fijian members and the General Voters Party (GVP), which is supported by non-indigenous Fijians and Fijian Indians. It had also the conditional support of the Fijian Labour Party (FLP) in parliamentary votes of confidence and after an undertaking by Rabuka to initiate the proposed review of the 1990 Constitution and tax, labour and land reform issues. When these conditions were not fulfilled, the FLP's support was withdrawn in June 1993. A split within the SVT over the 1993 November Budget led to the collapse of the government and to the February 1994 elections. The SVT rebels, led by former Deputy Prime Minister Josevata Kamikamica, formed the Fijian Association Party (FAP) but were unable to dent SVT support. The government was returned with increased support from indigenous Fijians in the elections.

The mandated constitutional review was initiated in 1993 by the Rabuka government after a period of ambiguous policy regarding the future of the country. In March 1995, after a series of protracted discussions, a Constitutional Commission was appointed. It was headed by Sir Paul Reeves, a former Archbishop and Governor-General of New Zealand with a Maori background and two others, Mr Tomasi Vakatora, a former Speaker, Senator, Cabinet Minister and businessman, and Dr Brij Lal, a Fijian-Indian historian from the Australian National University. The Commission's Report, Towards a United Future, was submitted to the government in September 1996 and presented to Parliament for consideration by a Joint Parliamentary Select Committee. In July 1997, both Houses of Parliament unanimously passed the Constitution (Amendment) Bill.(6) The new multiracial constitution was rejected by extremist elements, which claimed that it had sold out indigenous rights. The new constitution came into force in July 1998 and Fiji was readmitted to the Commonwealth.

The New Constitution

The new Constitution of the 'Republic of Fiji Islands' has an overarching vision for the country 'to convert a political culture of confrontation into a culture of cooperation'.(7) Though based on past constitutions, it includes chapters on a 'Compact', which lists twelve non-justiciable (i.e. not subject to judicial review) principles for the conduct of the government, a Bill of Rights and Social Justice. Overall it provides for a more representative, democratic and non-racial system than its immediate predecessor.

The offices of the President, Prime Minister and cabinet are no longer to be restricted to indigenous Fijians. The role of the Great Council of Chiefs now includes providing advice to the government on any matter relating to Fijian affairs, the right to approve Bills which affect Fijian interests and on matters affecting the nation as a whole. (These tasks were previously the special responsibility of the Senate.) The Council's power, under the 1990 Constitution to appoint the President remains, though under the new constitution the Senate needs to consult the Prime Minister (who is ex-officio, a member of the BLV).

Parliament consists of the President, Senate and the House of Representatives. The Senate has 32 members, 14 appointed by the President on the advice of the BLV, nine appointed by the Prime Minister, eight appointed on the advice of the Leader of the Opposition and one appointed on the advice of the Council of Rotuma. The House of Representatives has 71 members, 23 elected by indigenous Fijians, 19 by Indo-Fijians, one by Rotumans and three by others. 25 'Open' seats are to be elected by voters from all communities. Voting is compulsory and unlike the previous 'first past the post' system, the preferential system, known as the 'alternate vote', has been adopted.

Parliament, with a non-elected Speaker,(8) is strengthened with the establishment of five sectoral standing committees with research and advisory capacity. In support of this, the Australian Parliament conducted a workshop on the Committee System in May 1998. The United Nations Development Programme, with AusAID and the New Zealand Overseas Development Aid support, has also funded a two-year project to increase the capacity of the Parliamentary Library to provide accurate, timely, relevant and impartial information and advice to all parliamentarians in the performance of their duties.

In order to ensure a multi-party government to represent the major ethnic communities, parties winning at least 10 per cent of seats, 'must', under s. 99 of the Constitution, be invited by the Prime Minister to form a ruling coalition though parties can refuse the offer. In January 1999 after a workshop, conducted by the Inter-Parliamentary Union on 'Multi-Party Government' all parties signed a declaration for the establishment of a multi-party government after the elections. 'Crossing the floor' is also discouraged under s.71 (1)g, which states that a seat becomes vacant when a member resigns from his/her party.

Background to the 1999 Election

Since the coup of 1987, there had been a plummeting confidence in public institutions with increasing allegations of mismanagement, corruption and nepotism.(9) This has been compounded by the emigration of skilled and key workers, mostly Indo-Fijians. In the period 1987-94 emigration rose by 69 per cent (65 864 citizens) compared to the previous seven years. While this emigration has allayed the fears of indigenous Fijians, in terms of a decreasing Indo-Fijian population, a survey in 1996 indicated that 86 per cent of managers, 60 per cent of all accountants and 67 per cent of all statisticians, mathematicians and analysts left the country between 1987 and 1995.(10) This loss from the workforce continues to affect the economy. To overcome some of the economic problems, the Fiji dollar was devalued by 20 per cent in January 1998.

The major industries, sugar, tourism and gold, have also been affected. According to the 1999 budget, the production of sugar, the country's major crop, was the lowest in 30 years and receipts for 1998 worth F$220 million compared to F$350 million in a normal year. The industry had been devastated by a severe drought in 1998 and since the budget statement in November 1998, January Cyclone Dani resulted in widespread floods which destroyed much of the 1999 sugar crop. In this situation, tourism, which has recently boomed, is seen to be the key to Fiji's growth. In 1998 the industry contributed F$440 million to the economy and is expected to increase to F$586 million in 1999. Unemployment, though difficult to measure because of the subsistence economy, is believed to be high. In 1998 the government signed an agreement with the International Labour Organisation to lift job creation from 2000 to 9000 jobs a year to help absorb more of the 16 000 school leavers.

The complex issue of land leases, crucial for the sugar industry, in the rural (and in some urban areas), has continued to bedevil the government.(11) Eighty three per cent of all land in Fiji is communally owned and under customary tenure. Under the Agricultural Landlord and Tenant Act 1976 (ALTA), the Native Land Trust Board administers 14 112 leases. The Act stipulates a maximum term of 30 years with rent reassessed every five years, but made no provision for renewal. The expiry of these leases began in 1997 and the desire by some owners to use the land for themselves is complicated by other issues involving the quantum of rent, arrears and the period of renewal. This has caused tremendous anxiety on the part of both owners and leasers and though not completely racial, is often used by some politicians to advance their own causes. The government has established a task force as well as a parliamentary committee to make recommendations on the issue. The government, through the Land Development and Resettlement Unit, has also bought land to resettle displaced farmers whose leases are not renewed under ALTA.

The 1999 Budget provides for an expenditure of F$1074 million with revenue at F$996 million, a deficit of four per cent. The economy is expected to grow by five per cent after contracting by four per cent in 1998. As noted above, natural disasters early this year may reduce the expected growth. The government's debt of F$1.4 billion is equivalent to 45.5 per cent of Gross Domestic Product and debt servicing will increased to F$241 million in 1999 compared to F$196 million in 1998. This accounts for a massive 26 per cent of total operating expenditure. The government has repaid about F$44 million of the debt since December 1997. According to the budget, foreign reserves stand at F$710 million, covering about 5.5 months imports.

As a result of a World Bank report, the government has embarked on a policy of privatisation which, according to then Finance Minister Jim Ah Koy, has resulted in savings of F$16 million a year in repayments.(12) Fifty-one per cent of the National Bank was sold to Colonial Insurance and Amalgamated Telecoms Holdings, to the Fiji National Provident Fund. The government's decision to reform the public service and its financial management was also unpopular since both policies were seen as likely to result in inevitable redundancies.

The country was affected by a severe drought, which was made worse by the breakdown of the water supply in 1998. In January 1999, with no warning, floods devastated the Western Division, which was declared a disaster area and resulted in about 40 000 residents being dependent on relief. The government's slow response, in providing F$8m, two days after the Fiji Red Cross provided emergency aid, was severely criticised.

In February 1999 the decision by the government to buy 44 per cent of The Daily Post for F$525 000, from the state-owned Fiji Development Bank also attracted widespread criticism from media and political circles who saw it as a threat to media freedom and independence. The newspaper, one of two in Fiji, has a circulation of 17 000 and had never made a profit. The Finance Minister said it was 'purely a commercial decision' with the objective of developing the paper and then selling it to the public through the stock exchange. The government, according to him, had no intention of influencing editorial policy. There was a rival bid by an Indo-Fijian business group, close to the NFP. The Fiji Media Council said it was 'a serious threat to media independence'. The fact that the decision was made on the eve of the elections was not lost on the opposition. Jai Ram Reddy, Leader of the Opposition, said the government was hypocritical in selling state assets while Chaudhry of the FLP feared that the paper would become the 'mouthpiece' of government.(13)

Parties, Campaign and Issues

Twenty parties along with a number of independents contested the 1999 elections. The major and new parties were:

  • Soqosoqo ni Vakavulewa ni Taukei (SVT): Indigenous Fijian. The party was sponsored by the Great Council of Chiefs to contest the 1992 elections and led by Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka. The party branches did not endorse ten sitting members, including three ministers. The Foreign Minister Berenado Vunibobo was rejected by his Rewa branch but with Rabuka's help, was nominated to contest the Cunningham Open seat which he lost to Joeli Kalou, a defector and former SVT Minister, who had joined the FLP.
  • Fijian Association Party (FAP): Indigenous Fijian. Split from SVT in 1994 over the budget but rejoined the government in March 1996. Now led by Adi Kuini Speed, wife of deposed Prime Minister Bavadra, who took over from the late Josevata Kamikamica (former Deputy Prime Minister) in August 1998. The party has strong support in the Lau groups of Islands. Among its candidates was Adi Sai Tuivanuavou, sister of President Mara, who lost to her cousin, SVT's Ratu Naiqama Tawake Lalabalavu, in the Lau/Taveuni/Rotuma Open seat.
  • National Federation Party (NFP): Though launched in 1963 as a multiracial party, it is dominated and supported by Indo-Fijians and led by Jai Ram Reddy, a lawyer and Leader of the Opposition. Its original base of Indo-Fijian cane farmers has eroded since a party split in 1985.
  • Fiji Labour Party (FLP): Multiracial. Formed in 1985 by the late Dr Timoci Bavadra and its current leader, Mahendra Chaudhry (who was the General-Secretary of the Fiji Public Service Association and National Farmers Union) after the NFP supported the government's decision to freeze wages. The party won government, with the support of the NFP, in April 1987 but was overthrown by the military coup. Major support is working class Indo-Fijians and, until 1987, indigenous Fijians particularly from western Fiji.
  • Party of National Unity (PANU): Indigenous Fijian. A new party based in Ba Province. Led by Ratu Sairusi Gagavoka, high chief of Ba. Two-thirds of all ALTA administered lands are in Ba province.
  • Veitokani ni Lewenivanua Vakaristo (VLV) Christian Democratic Alliance. A new party formed in 1997 and announced from the pulpit during Sunday service was registered in February 1999. It is led by the Reverend Ratu Josaia Rayawa. After the coup in 1987, fundamentalists, led by Reverend Manasa Lasaro, former secretary-general of the Methodist Church, had sought to ban all activities on Sunday.(14) Reverend Lasaro lost in Tamavua/Laucala Fijian urban communal constituency to FAP. The Party is supported mainly by indigenous Fijians though two of its 46 candidates were Indo-Fijians. The party advocates strengthening the anti-corruption laws, establishment of poverty eradication programs and sees the family as the basic foundation of society. Prominent Fijians including the Vice-Chairman of Fiji Sugar Corporation were sacked after they declared their support. Notable candidates include Brigadier Ratu Epeli Ganilau, son of the first President, who resigned as the army commander and had expressed interest in becoming the Prime Minister in a television interview (but lost), and Poseci Bune, former Ambassador to the United Nations, who also resigned to contest the elections. Bune defeated the Assistant Minister of Information Ratu Josefa Dimuri in the Macuata Fijian Provincial communal seat. Adi Koila Nailatikau, daughter of the President, who had initially decided to stand as an independent, won the Lau Fijian Provincial Communal seat (which was held by her brother, Ratu Finau Mara, the minister for Fijian Affairs). The party is now the major rival of the SVT.
  • United General Party (UGP): Non-indigenous and non-Indo-Fijian support. The party is a merger of the General Electors Party and the General Voters Party and led by David Pickering, Minister of Tourism. The party split over allocation of seats before the elections.
  • Nationalist Vanua Tako Lavo Party (NVTLA): A Racially extremist indigenous Fijian party campaigning on the slogan 'Fiji for the Fijians' and had called for the repatriation of Indo-Fijians to India. A coalition of Iliesa Duvuloco's Vanu Tako Lavo Party and Sakeasi Butadroka's Fijian Nationalist Party. Both leaders burnt the new constitution when it was passed by Parliament in 1997 and were involved in land disputes with the government. Supporters are found in the Monasavu area and generally rural areas.
  • COIN: Coalition of six independent Nationals, led by Prince Vyas Muni Lakshman which opposes political parties because they divide and rule. All were defeated.

The major contenders were the two main coalitions formed to contest the elections. The ruling coalition of SVT-UGP was joined by NFP, whose leader Reddy, had worked closely with Rabuka on the new constitution. The FAP though invited, declined to join them. The government led coalition was challenged by the opposition 'People's Coalition', which included the FLP, FAP and PANU. There were initial problems and conflict over individual party candidates and where they were to contest. Within the government coalition, the UGP split, as the result of the non-selection of two sitting members, Leo Smith and Bill Aull. These two contested, successfully, as independents. In Ba province, the base of PANU, no agreement was reached by the People's Coalition, resulting in competition between member parties. PANU claimed that FLP negated an agreement to split seats evenly.(15)

The major issue for the SVT-led coalition was the successful negotiation of the new multiracial constitution and its Strategic Plan, which concentrated on the agricultural sector, for the next three years. However the SVT was attacked by other and extremist indigenous Fijian parties. Rabuka saw his party's biggest threat in the communal seats to come from the VLV and in the open seats, he saw the FAP, with Labour and PANU support, being the main challenge.(16)

During the campaign, Rabuka apologised for the 1987 coup and stated that though he took full responsibility for it, he named others who had incited him. He also expressed confidence in winning a majority of seats. On claims that he was involved in an alleged sexual 'Kama Sutra' incident at the Fiji golf club at Vatuwaqa, he denied involvement and claimed that the allegations were baseless and defamatory.(17) Rabuka, in response to accusations by the extremists (below), said that 'I am a nationalist not racist' and that the uniting of the two main communal parties was a new dawn for politics in Fiji.(18)

The VLV campaigned under the slogan of 'It is time to change'. Poseci Bune called on the people to vote for a change from the governance of 'abuse of office, nepotism, and incompetence'. He also claimed that the proposed Finance Management Reform would the cause loss of 2000 public service jobs.(19)

The extremist nationalist, Sakeasi Butadroka, who lost his seat in the elections, claimed that nationalists had put Rabuka in power and he (Rabuka) had turned against them. Butadroka saw the 1997 constitution a sell-out of indigenous Fijian rights and which had made their chiefs 'toothless tigers'. For him, the appropriate policy was 'Fiji for the indigenous Fijians and that at all times their rights should be preserved'. He also wanted to change the constitution and replace it with one that consolidated Fijian rights. The President, according to him, should be an indigenous Fijian and there was no role for the Prime Minister in the President's selection by the BLV, which was the prerogative of chiefs. For him, issues involving customary land should be controlled by the Native Land Trust Board and not by a Joint Parliamentary Select Committee, formed to made decisions on Fijian lands.(20)

The FLP during its campaign promised that if elected, it would re-examine the government's policy of privatisation. The party also promised to protect minimum-wage laws; ensure social justice; look after the special needs of farmers and of women workers; and require employers to provide child care facilities. The government's public sector reform was also attacked by Chaudhry who claimed that the reforms 'foisted upon us by the World Bank are leading to mass redundancies'.(21) The party also claimed that the SVT has left 'Fiji in a mess'.(22) The Coalition saw job creation as a priority and also promised to weed out corruption and install a code of conduct for those in high office.(23) The People's Coalition also promised to abolish the 10 per cent Value Added Tax (valued at F$220 million in 1998 and constituting a third of government revenue). Finance Minister Ah Koy said that this would lead to massive job loss and higher direct income tax.(24)

The NFP campaign theme was 'Co-operation for a better Future'. The party's manifesto declared that the only way to solve Fiji's economic and social problems and to ensure economic growth is through cooperation between ethnic groups and their parties. These include resolving the ALTA land leases (see page 5) and revitalising the sugar industry. It also supported broad ownership and the development of small enterprises and a fair and caring distribution of the benefits of economic growth. Its major task was to explain the benefits of the new constitution, for which it claims credit, and during the campaign, praised Rabuka for his role in achieving it. Towards the end of the campaign, the NFP was put on the defensive for its decision to join the SVT coalition.

In summary, while the ruling coalition campaigned on its success in delivering a new multiracial constitution and emphasised the future benefits of its macroeconomic policies, the People's Coalition concentrated on the 'bread and butter' issues, the adverse impact of government's policies and record of stewardship on the electorate.


Fiji 1999 Elections Results (winning parties only)







% of 1st Vote(25)



















































No of Seats









*Not listed is the one seat won by the All-National Congress in 1994. Two of the UGP's four seats listed in 1994 were won by defectors who stood, and won, as independents in 1999.

Observers of the election had generally expected the SVT coalition to be re-elected with Rabuka's coalition to 'emerge as the largest bloc'.(26) It was thus a shock that the FLP won an absolute majority with 37 seats, 23 of these won outright, and was able, as a multiracial party, to form a new government in its own right. It also won the largest proportion, 32.2 per cent, of the first preferential vote compared to 21.16 per cent and 14.21 per cent by SVT and FNP respectively. The new parliament will also have, with seven, the highest number of women members and five Independents, two of whom were former members of the UGP. A Fijian independent member, Simione Kaitani, has since joined the VLV.(27)

The NFP was completely annihilated, losing all of its 20 seats to the FLP. The contest for the Indo-Fijian communal seats, was overwhelmingly a two-way contest between the NFP and the FLP. The FLP won with a consistent margin of between two to three votes for each vote won by the NFP. In the open seats the result achieved by the NFP was equally convincing, whether its opponent was from the NFP or SVT. The major reason for its defeat, according to NFP candidate, Dr Wadan Nasey, was the decision to join the SVT coalition and, despite significant differences in policy between the two, being lumped with the unpopular policies of the government.(28) After the elections Reddy said that it was not the end of the NFP which 'did what we felt was right for Fiji'. He accepted personal responsibility for the humiliating defeat and regretted that the people rejected the NFP-SVT-UGP concept of multiracialism.(29)

The fact remains that while the NFP could legitimately claim credit, and there can be no denial that the new constitution had achieved historical and momentous changes in terms of the 'big picture', voters appeared more concerned with the problems and issues that plagued their daily lives. Moreover with communal seats still playing a key role, it was inevitable that past pains could not be forgotten from the Indo-Fijian voters' perspective, nor could the NFP be excused for cooperating with Rabuka.

Chaudhry claimed that the FLP's victory was the result of the people's 'frustration' at problems of unemployment, poverty, crime, failure of government services and income disparity between the rich and the poor.(30) An editorial in The Fiji Times observed that the NFP won because of its multicultural image and 'its image as a caring, humane party that stays close to the grassroots people'.(31)

The SVT, as the result of competition from rival indigenous Fijian parties also lost ground with five Ministers losing their seats. It won eight compared to 31 seats in 1994. In contrast to the Indo-Fijian seats, the contest for votes in the Fijian communal seats was more even. The other indigenous Fijian parties, FAP, PANU, VLV and the extremist NVTLP(32) won at the expense of SVT, 11, four, three and one seats respectively. In a number of cases (and in one where an independent won) the new 'alternate vote' system contributed to the loss of SVT seats. There have been calls to return to the old system. SVT sources also attributed the result to the 'disunity among chiefs who set up and supported new parties'.(33) Rabuka resigned as party leader and was replaced by Ratu Inole Kubuabola.

Many Fijians saw the election results as a repeat of 1987. This was the view of Apisai Tora, secretary-general of PANU and Bau Chief Adi Litia Cakobau of SVT, who also observed that the Fijian votes were split and many of the chiefs lost their seats because the people wanted a change.(34) The Nationalists, in a meeting after the elections, made a 'blood pledge' to overthrow the government and constitution and to introduce a Fijianisation policy. They also planned a protest march through Suva to the meeting of the BLV.(35) Another reaction was a proposal to form a new party, Taukei United Front by defeated candidates of SVT and other indigenous parties. One reason given for this was that the proposers did not want the BLV to be used to unite indigenous Fijians.(36)

Formation of the New Government

The FLP's decision to support Chaudhry for the Prime Ministership led to initial tensions, with FAP and PANU temporarily leaving the People's Coalition. PANU's secretary also claimed that the country was 'not ready' for an Indo-Fijian Prime Minister, and that there was a prior agreement (with FAP) that the Prime Minister should be an indigenous Fijian.(37)

The role and influence of President Mara in persuading the FAP and PANU to return and support Chaudhry was crucial. Also of significance was that Rabuka, who had won his seat against a Chief, 'fully accepted and supported Mahendra Chaudhry as the new PM'.(38) Former Opposition leader Reddy also supported Chaudhry's claim for office, saying that the people had overwhelmingly voted for him.(39)

In allaying indigenous fears, Chaudhry sought to form a wider coalition and invited the VLV to join it, much to the dismay of his coalition partners, who were not consulted. In a ministry of 22 there were 17 indigenous Fijians, including the two Deputy Prime Ministers, Dr Tupeni Baba from his own party and Adi Kuini Speed (who was also appointed Minister for Fijian Affairs), leader of FAP. There were initial reports that Chaudhry would appoint, via the Senate, former army commander Ratu Epeli Ganilau, defeated VLV candidate, as Minister of Home Affairs.(40) This did not eventuate.

Chaudhry also invited the SVT to join the government, but rejected SVT's 'unlawful conditions' for joining his cabinet. These include demands for the position of Deputy Prime Minister for Rabuka, three cabinet posts and that the Prime Minister's nominees for the Senate should include three SVT members. Further the SVT demanded that SVT appointees to embassies and high commissions abroad and government bodies were to be allowed to serve out their term of office.(41)

Rabuka, aware of the reactions of the indigenous Fijians, in his farewell speech as Prime Minister appealed to the Indo-Fijian community who had 'bloc voted', 'to show greater responsibility to our wider common interests as a nation'. According to him, indigenous Fijians had 'given and sacrificed so much in agreeing to the review of the 1990 constitution' and 'let us now without rancour, bitterness or any thought of division congratulate our fellow citizens who have won the day'. He also warned that:

If the new Government were to use its majority to bulldoze through measures which we see as being detrimental to the best interest of the indigenous Fijians, we would oppose these vigorously both in the House of Representatives and in the Senate and we will not hesitate to call on the support of the Great Council of Chiefs' appointees in the Upper House.(42)

The new Prime Minister thanked Rabuka and pledged 'to uphold the constitution and to work with others in building on the foundation for national unity, stability and progress which you and the government that you very ably led during the past seven years has bequeathed to us'.(43)

In his address to the Great Council of Chiefs, BLV, after presenting his government, Chaudhry promised that he would ensure the protection of indigenous interests and reassured indigenous Fijians that they have nothing to fear from his government. He also sought the support and backing of the BLV.

Since the elections, the BLV, to the surprise of many and the opposition of extremists, has appointed Rabuka as its first independent Chairman and as a consequence, Rabuka has resigned his parliamentary seat. The new Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Fijian Affairs, Adi Kuini Speed, has also given notice to the BLV to decide, at its next meeting, whether it wants to remain politically aligned to the SVT.(44)

Given the similarity to the 1987 election results, and after Chaudhry was sworn in as Prime Minister, security in the country was tightened. There were reports of minor politically inspired incidents.(45) Metuisela Mua, Director of Fiji Intelligence Services in appealing to the people to remain calm also said enigmatically, 'Let's give the new government a go. If they falter then it's a different matter'.(46) This implies that there are still some reservations in the support of the new government.

As part of his promise to have an open and accountable government, the new Prime Minister instructed the Attorney-General to draft priority bills which will include a Code of Conduct, a special Anti-Corruption Unit and Freedom of Information.(47)


The peaceful change of government in Fiji, despite the unexpected result, has been widely welcomed. Internally, some extremists will continue to oppose the government but on the whole, it would appear that many indigenous Fijians have accepted the result and are willing to give the new government a chance to prove itself.

The new government faces several major challenges the most difficult and potentially explosive of which, because of its underlying communal overtones, is over ALTA. It has to ensure that whatever decisions are made would have the widest support among the Ratus, indigenous Fijians as well as taking account of the interests of the Indo-Fijians cane farmers.

Economically, its promises, such as abolishing the Value Added Tax, though popular, may be harder to keep if it wants to ensure efficiency, job creation and sustainable growth. However, once settled, it may be able to attract new investments as well as the return of some of the indo-Fijian capital, which left the country after the coup, and also attract key workers back to help accelerate economic growth. In these tasks, it faces a steep learning curve.

Fiji's new constitution has successfully faced its first test. The Prime Minister though elected legally and constitutionally, needs to demonstrate, particularly to the indigenous Fijians, that he and his government, as he promised the BLV, are indeed 'servants to all the people' of Fiji. He has already demonstrated superb political skills and sensitivities to key issues during and after the elections. This will need to be sustained.


  1. See Nicholas Thomas, 'Regional Politics, Ethnicity, and Custom in Fiji', Contemporary Pacific, vol. 2, no. 1, Spring 1990, pp. 131-46.

  2. For details see Eddie Dean and Stan Ritova, Rabuka No Other Way, Doubleday, Sydney. 1988. 90 per cent of the Fijian armed forces is made up of indigenous Fijians.

  3. See Roger Barltrop, 'Fiji, Crown and Commonwealth', The Round Table, no. 337, 1996, pp. 83-9.

  4. Rt. Hon. Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, 'Fiji's Constitution: Product of a complex history', The Parliamentarian, vol LXXII, no.4, October 1991, p. 276.

  5. Brij Lal, Another Way: the politics of constitutional reform in post-coup Fiji, NCDS Asia Pacific Press, ANU, Canberra., 1998, p. 57.

  6. For an overview, see Stephen Sherlock, 'Constitutional and Political Change in Fiji', Research Paper no. 7, Department of the Parliamentary Library 1997-98. A more detailed study is provided by Brig Lal, op.cit.

  7. Brij Lal, ibid., p. xii. For a critical view see Hugh Hickling, Fiji A Constitution Too Far, Occasional Paper no. 1, 1998, Centre for Southeast Asian Law, Northern Territory University, Darwin.

  8. Under s. 80 (1) of the Constitution the Speaker is elected by members after a general election. After the May election the former Speaker Dr Apenisa Kurisaqila was re-elected in the new parliament but according to the press, is expected to vacate it in favour of a new Speaker, Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, High Court judge of Lakutoka when the latter completes his present commitments.

  9. For details of some of these issues see Sanjay Ramesh, March 1999: Prelude to the May 1999 Elections in Fiji, Pacific Island Report, University of Hawaii, Manoa, 31 March 1999.

  10. Quoted by Brij Lal, ibid., p. 56.

  11. For details see Malakai Tadulala, Land Leases in Fiji, Background Paper no.1, July 1997, Information and Research Unit, Parliament of Fiji Library.

  12. The Daily Post, 5 April 1999.

  13. Quoted in Pacific Journalism Review, vol. 5, no.1, March 1999.

  14. On this issue, the party said it would not support the erections of roadblocks, as in the past, on Sundays but will uphold a policy to ensure that 'essential services are maintained throughout the day'. The Fiji Times, 8 April 1999.

  15. The Fiji Times, 19 May 1999.

  16. The Daily Post, 2 April 1999.

  17. The Daily Post, 2 April 1999.

  18. The Daily Post, 11 April 1999.

  19. The Fiji Times, 3 April 1999.

  20. The Daily Post, 6 April 1999.

  21. The Daily Post, 11 April 1999.

  22. The Daily Post, 13 April 1999.

  23. The Fiji Times, 15 April 1999.

  24. The Fiji Times, 12 April 1999.

  25. It was not possible to calculate the percentage of votes won by parties because it would appear that the counting stopped once a candidate achieved 50 per cent plus one vote. This was the case in 28 seats.

  26. Pacific Report, vol. 12, no. 10, 10 May 1999.

  27. The Fiji Times, 8 June 1999.

  28. The Fiji Times, 19 May 1999.

  29. ibid.

  30. Pacific Report, vol.11, no.10, 25 May 1999.

  31. The Fiji Times, 19 May 1999.

  32. The party initially won two seats but after a court challenge and a recount, the FAP was declared the winner.

  33. The Fiji Times, 26 May 1999.

  34. The Fiji Times, 19 May 1999.

  35. The Fiji Times, 22 May 1999.

  36. The Daily Post, 9 June 1999.

  37. The Fiji Times, 19 May 1999.

  38. The Fiji Times, 25 May 1999.

  39. The Fiji Times, 19 May 1999.

  40. The Fiji Times, 21 May 1999. The position was reported to be held by Chaudhry for former Housing Authority executive, Ratu Viliame Volavola. The Daily Post, 19 June 1999.

  41. ibid.

  42. The Fiji Times, 19 May 1999.

  43. ibid.

  44. The Daily Post, 11 June 1999.

  45. Pacific Report, 25 May 1999.

  46. The Fiji Times, 21 May 1999.

  47. The Fiji Times, 20 and 25 May 1999.