by Michael McKenna -The Australian
Former Fiji prime minister Mahendra Chaudhry yesterday called on military leader Frank Bainimarama to return the South Pacific nation to democracy as the population increasingly suffers rising food prices and worsening social tensions in the face of international isolation.
With Fiji almost guaranteed to be suspended this week from the Pacific Islands Forum, Mr Chaudhry defied a press and political crackdown on dissent to blast Commodore Bainimarama's "autocratic and dictatorial" leadership after taking power
in a bloodless coup in December 2006.
A finance minister in Commodore Bainimarama's interim government until August last year, Mr Chaudhry said his former political ally's refusal to hold elections until 2014 was hurting the population, with the instability driving down the economy and contributing to racial tensions.
Commodore Bainimarama's anti-elections stance seems certain to confirm Fiji's suspension from the Pacific Islands Forum. In January, member nations ordered Fiji to set the date for democratic elections by May 1. That deadline edges ever closer and Fiji looks even less likely to meet it now than it did in January.
Mr Chaudhry's Fiji Labour Party is seeking talks with Commodore Bainimarama to resume negotiations for democratic elections to be held as soon as possible.
"We have severe problems over here with the economy, and the dollar has been devalued by 20 per cent," he told The Australian. "Fiji is a nation that imports a lot of food and people are finding it increasingly difficult to put food on the table. Ordinary people are feeling it, and, of course, there are social tensions.
"But we can't address these issues without restoring political stability, it is now imperative to find a solution."
Mr Chaudhry and two fellow Labour Party ministers quit the interim Government last year after Commodore Bainimarama went back on a promise to hold elections in Fiji by March, saying he needed more time to reform the nation's political system and root out corruption.
This month, Commodore Bainimarama went further by repealing the Constitution, before the judiciary was sacked and emergency regulations put in place to control free speech.
Regime censors have been sent into newsrooms to prevent sensitive political stories being published or broadcast.
Mr Chaudhry, a former prime minister who was ousted in the previous 2000 nationalist coup, said he had initially supported Commodore Bainimarama in his push to eradicate race politics in the country.
Commodore Bainimarama had accused that government of corruption and implementing racist policies to the detriment of Fiji's minority ethnic Indian community, which is the Labour Party's key constituency and support base. But Mr Chaudhry said the dumping of the Constitution and the regime's latest crackdown on the judiciary and press were worrying for the future of the country.
"The abrogation of the Constitution was tragic and unfortunate," he said. "We need to get talks, that include (2006 ousted prime minister) Laisenia Qarase, back on track to map out a way back to democracy."