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Elections - August 2001

On 28 July 2000 the military transferred power to a non-elected interim administration led by Laisenia Qarase, an ex-banker who at the time of the coup was a member of the Senate. Qarase, in turn appointed a Cabinet and other Ministers. On 15 November 2000, Fiji's High Court ruled that the military's abrogation of the 1997 Constitution was illegal. After some negotiation, Qarase's government remained in place in a caretaker capacity ahead of a general election in August 2001. The electorate voted mainly along ethnic lines, and Qarese's newly formed Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL) party won 31 of the 71 parliamentary seats. The FLP, again led by Mahendra Chaudhry, won 27 seats. Although constitutionally required to offer Cabinet positions to the FLP, after much legal wrangling the FLP decided to forego Cabinet positions in preference of its formal establishment as the Opposition.

Military commander Commodore Bainimarama helped resolve the 2000 crisis by imposing martial law. Bainimarama appointed an interim government led by interim Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase. Subsequently, Qarase was elected in 2001 and 2006, but pursued some policies favoring the indigenous Fijian community.

One of the main issues of contention is land tenure. Indigenous Fijian communities very closely identify themselves with their land. In 1909 the land ownership pattern was frozen by the British and further sales prohibited. Today, 87% of the land is held by indigenous Fijians, under the collective ownership of the traditional Fijian clans (mataqali). That land cannot be sold and is held in trust by the Native Land Trust Board on behalf of the landowning units. Indo-Fijians produce more than 75% of the sugar crop but, in most cases, must lease the land they work from its ethnic Fijian owners.

In 2005 and 2006, tensions rose between Bainimarama and Qarase over legislation proposed by the Qarase government concerning land ownership, traditional non-public ownership of the foreshore, and a reconciliation bill that opened the possibility to grant immunity to some coup participants from 2000. Bainimarama began to make demands and threats, and engaged in shows of military force to intimidate the Qarase government into backing away from the controversial policies.

The year 2005 was dominated by the SDL government's attempt to introduce three pieces of controversial legislation: the Native Lands Bill, the Customary Fisheries Bill and, most contentiously, 'The Promotion of Reconciliation, Tolerance and Unity Bill' (the 'RTU Bill'). The RTU Bill generated considerable criticism and opposition from many sections of society, and led to increased friction between the Government and the Republic of Fiji Military Forces. This friction continued into 2006, when Qarase announced that the October 2006 general election would be brought forward to May. The SDL secured 38 parliamentary seats in the election, with the FLP coalition securing 33.

Qarese again offered Cabinet positions to the FLP. This time, however, the FLP accepted. Its coalition partner, the United People's Party (which secured two parliamentary seats) withdrew from the FLP coalition in order to sit as the Opposition. President Iloilo opened Parliament on 6 June 2006, urging Fiji's first multi-party Cabinet to co-operate for the benefit of the nation. (The Cabinet was mandated to operate on consensus, so co-operation was critical to its success.)

Discord remained between the government and the military, not least as the Commander Bainimarama believed the Qarase government had failed to meet the promises on which he had first established them in the aftermath of the coup of 2000. However, the election of a multi-party Cabinet appeared to lessen tensions with the Commander promising to give the government a chance to prove itself.

By September 2006, Bainimarama's patience with the Qarase government was wearing thin. Military/government tensions escalated and, in October 2006, Bainimarama called for the government to either withdraw all controversial legislation or resign. The weeks that followed saw a further upsurge in tension. By mid-November, Bainimarama had delivered to Qarase a list of 6 demands. Soon thereafter, Bainimarama promised that the government's failure to deliver would result in a military-led 'Clean-Up Campaign' in early December. Qarase attempted to negotiate, with no success. On 29 November, New Zealand Foreign Minister, Winston Peters, brokered talks in Wellington between Qarase and Bainimarama. During the talks, Qarase made substantial concessions to Bainimarama's demands. Bainimarama later denied the read-out given to the public by Qarase, though Qarase's account was swiftly and fully confirmed by the New Zealand Government.

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