Democracy In Fiji

In May 2000, ultranationalist rebels stormed Fiji's parliament and took the country's first Indian leader hostage. For eight weeks Mahendra Chaudhry, a descendant of immigrant sugar-cane farmers, endured beatings and death threats during his country's second coup since its independence from Great Britain in 1970. To end the crisis, the military scrapped Fiji's multiethnic constitution and installed an indigenous prime minister. But Chaudhry never gave up. On Wednesday his Labor Party-the political voice of Fiji's 44 percent ethnic Indian minority-claimed victory in court-ordered elections aimed at restoring democracy in the tiny South Pacific nation of 820,000 people. Among the other winners: jailed coup leader George Speight, the swaggering businessman who toppled Chaudhry's government 18 months ago. Following his victory, Chaudhry spoke by telephone with NEWSWEEK's George Wehrfritz in Tokyo. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Politics have proven very dangerous for you. What drove you to run again?

Mahendra Chaudhry: We have an electorate that put its faith in us. Not to continue with the battle would be to surrender to terrorists and thugs and racists.

Will the election bring stability to Fiji?

The results have been very encouraging for the Labor Party. In fact, we are looking at 32-33 seats, quite close to an absolute majority, and will be the single largest party in Parliament.

Will you form a government?

We are negotiating with some of the smaller parties and independents. We hope to be able to form a government.

What prevents your opponents from again resorting to violence?

There is a general feeling among the public and the authorities that another coup would be so disastrous that Fiji would sink into an abyss. The elements who were responsible [for last year's coup] are awaiting trial on treason charges, which is encouraging. Aside from that, the military has also made it very clear that elections must be respected and that they will enforce the rule of law.

Prominent nationalists, including jailed coup leader George Speight, also won seats in Parliament. Does this worry you?

It certainly is a worrying sign. But the extremist parties haven't themselves done very well.

What must be done to prevent postelection violence?

We must watch the entrenched groups. For instance, the people who were responsible for the coup last year were defeated politicians and corrupt members of the business community. They felt threatened, and they financed [my] government's destabilization. Eventually, they paid for the weapons [used in the coup]. Then they used the media to brainwash people with lies about what we were doing. But now, I think, the Fijian people realize that they've benefited nothing from it. In fact, they are the ones who suffered the worst in terms of job losses, rising prices, poverty and crime. Their rights were never really threatened. Their ownership of land was never really threatened.

You have accused Caretaker Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase of vote-buying. He has ruled out the possibility of working with you. The rivalry sounds very serious. What can you both do to prevent the escalation from rhetoric to violence?

The constitution allows any party that wins more than 10 percent of seats in parliament [eight] to be a part of the government. The prime minister is required to invite the leaders of that party to join the cabinet. Qarase's party will cross that threshold. If he is invited to join a Labor Party government but does not accept, then he chooses to be in the opposition.

That's his decision. But there will be other members of his party who will want government positions, so he may have to reconsider this intransigence that he seems to be dishing out for public consumption.

If you do form a government what will your first priorities be?

First, of course, will be rehabilitating the economy. A lot of damage has been done and we've got to start rebuilding. We have some very fundamental problems in this country, like high unemployment, a very high crime rate, rising prices and escalating poverty. Repairing race relations is also a priority. It's going to be a damn difficult climb-for any government which comes in. When a country adopts a "coup culture," it frightens investors away. It chases away skilled people, so the country is that much poorer.

How might Fiji shed its coup culture?

Without participation of people in the military, there is no way a coup could be successful. So the first task is to make the military professional. Today its loyalties are divided on the basis of province and ethnicity. It's a very dangerous state institution. No elected government can feel safe until the military cleanses itself.

In the interest of national reconciliation, would you support an amnesty for participants in the coup that toppled your government?

No. We've got to live by the rule of law and deter such people. If you keep giving them amnesties you are condoning criminality and encouraging terrorists. It is not the sort of behavior that is expected in any civilized society.