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Coup - 19 May 2000

Tensions simmered in 1995-96 over the renewal of land leases and political maneuvering surrounding the mandated 5-year review of the 1990 constitution. A Constitutional Review Commission recommended a new constitution that expanded the size of the legislature, lowered the proportion of seats reserved by ethnic group, gave to the unelected Council of Chiefs authority to appoint the president and vice president, and opened the position of prime minister to all races. Ethnic Fijians and Indo-Fijians were allocated communal seats proportional to their numbers in the population at the time. Twenty-five seats were "open" to all. Prime Minister Rabuka and President Mara supported the proposal, while the nationalist indigenous Fijian parties opposed it. The constitution amendment act was unanimously approved by parliamentarians in July 1997. The new constitution mandated the formation of a multi-party cabinet (each party with 10% of members of Parliament was entitled to nominate a cabinet minister). Fiji was readmitted to the Commonwealth.

The first legislative elections held under the new constitution took place in May 1999. Elections under the new Constitution produced a surprise landslide victory for a coalition dominated by the, predominantly Indo-Fijian, Fiji Labour Party (FLP). Rabuka's coalition was defeated by the Fiji Labor Party (FLP), which formed a coalition, led by Mahendra Chaudhry, with two small Fijian parties. Chaudhry became Fiji's first Indo-Fijian prime minister.

However, on 19 May 2000, an armed group of ethnic Fijians invaded Parliament and held hostage Mahendra Chaudhry, most of his Cabinet, and most other members of Parliament. The group was supported by rebel soldiers and led by George Speight, son of an Opposition MP and member of the same Taukei group that inspired the 1987 coups. A wave of rioting and looting by Speight supporters followed, with several abortive attempts to negotiate the release of the hostages. The standoff dragged on for 8 weeks -- during which time on 28 May Chaudhry was removed from office by then-president Mara due to his inability to govern while a hostage.

The next day, the commander of Fiji's military, Commodore Frank Bainimarama declared martial law. The Republic of Fiji military forces abrogated the constitution, convinced President Mara to resign, and brokered a negotiated end to the situation. After the President stepped aside, he abrogated the 1997 constitution. On 6 June Fiji was suspended from the Councils of the Commonwealth (exclusion from all meetings and bodies of the Commonwealth, rather than a full expulsion. Fiji was readmitted in December 2001).

The hostage crisis ended on 13 July 2000, when coup leader George Speight released the hostages in return for a number of concessions. In July, Speight and some of his supporters were arrested and charged with treason. After being initially granted an amnesty from prosecution, Speight was later arrested when he violated the settlement's terms. Speight was convicted of treason on 18 February 2002 and sentenced to death for treason nearly two years after storming Parliament with a gang of nationalist gunmen. His sentence was reduced to life in prison by the country's president. He remains imprisoned.

In July 2000, the military commander Frank Bainimarama and the Great Council of Chiefs appointed former banker Laisenia Qarase interim Prime Minister and head of the interim civilian administration. The Vice President, Ratu Josefa Iloilo, was named President. The Court of Appeal in March 2001 reaffirmed the validity of the constitution and ordered the President to recall the elected Parliament. However, the President dissolved the Parliament elected in 2000 and appointed Qarase head of a caretaker government to take Fiji to general elections that were held in August. Qarase's newly formed Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL) party won the elections but did not invite into the cabinet representatives of the FLP as required by the constitution. In May 2006, the SDL was re-elected to a majority in the Parliament. Qarase continued as Prime Minister and formed a multi-party cabinet, which included nine members of the FLP.

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