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Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Fiji's political rights ratings improved from 6 to 4 due to the country's return to civilian rule.
Fiji returned to rule by the ballot box following elections in September 2001, but the South Pacific island country faced continued political and economic uncertainty. Few of the land and other resource grievances that fueled a coup attempt in 2000 in the name of indigenous Fijian rights have been addressed. Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, an indigenous Fijian who headed an interim government following the putsch, pledged to resolve native land grievances. At the same time, he promised not to curb the rights of Fijians of Indian descent, who make up an economically powerful minority, when his government reviews Fiji's multiracial constitution in 2002.
Fiji's paramount chiefs ceded sovereignty over their islands to London in 1874. Five years later, the British began bringing in Indian laborers to work on plantations. At independence in 1970, the indigenous-Fijian and Indo-Fijian communities were roughly equal in size.
Following 17 years of rule by the indigenous-Fijian Alliance Party, the 1987 elections brought to power a government made up largely of Indo-Fijians. Backed by indigenous Fijian hardliners, Sitiveni Rabuka, a senior army officer, seized power in coups in May and September. Rabuka and his supporters were concerned with the growing clout of the Indo-Fijian community, which already dominated agriculture and business.
Rabuka played a pivotal role in Fijian politics for more than a decade, forming governments following elections in 1992 and 1994. Those elections were held under a constitution that guaranteed indigenous Fijians a parliamentary majority and required the prime minister to be an indigenous Fijian. Amid a continuing exodus of thousands of skilled Indo-Fijians, parliament amended the constitution in 1997 to remove these guarantees.
The first elections under the amended constitution, in March 1999, brought to power a multiracial coalition government under the Fiji Labor Party (FLP) of Mahendra Chaudhry. A former labor leader, Chaudhry became Fiji's first prime minister of Indian descent. He soon angered many indigenous Fijians with his policies on land and logging. He pressured indigenous-Fijian landowners to renew expiring 30-year leases held by Indo-Fijian tenant farmers without much of an increase in rents. Indigenous Fijians own roughly 83 percent of the land, while Indo-Fijian tenant farmers are the main producers of sugar and other commodities. The government, moreover, gave a contract for logging on indigenous-Fijian land to a British company rather than accepting a more lucrative American bid.
Calling for greater indigenous-Fijian rights, George Speight, a businessman, together with an armed gang that included more than 50 rebel soldiers, held Chaudhry and other officials in the parliament building in Suva for 56 days in mid-2000. After defusing the crisis, the military installed Qarase, a banker, to lead an interim government and arrested Speight and more than 300 of his supporters. Capping a tumultuous year, some 50 pro-Speight soldiers mutinied on November 2, leaving at least eight soldiers dead. Speight is expected to be tried for treason in 2002.
Qarase retained his post as prime minister after leading his new Fiji United Party (FUP), a moderate indigenous-Fijian group, to victory in elections held between August 25 and September 2, 2001. The election was called after the court of appeal in March upheld a November 2000 high court ruling that Qarase's interim government was illegal and the 1997 constitution was still in force. Final results gave the FUP 32 seats; the FLP, 27; and the new Conservative Alliance, an indigenous-Fijian party, 6. Three minor parties and two independents took the remaining 6 seats. In addition to his pledge to assess whether the constitution provides enough protection for indigenous-Fijian rights, Qarase also promised to set up a tribunal to deal with native land grievances. In another development, the Great Council of Chiefs in March named Ratu Josefa Iloilo, the acting president, to a five-year term as president.
Fiji returned to elected civilian rule in 2001, but Fijians face limits on their choice of leaders. In the aftermath of the 2000 coup attempt, it seems doubtful that a government led by Indo-Fijians could survive.
The constitution vests executive power in a prime minister and cabinet. The 1997 constitutional amendments ended the guaranteed parliamentary majority enjoyed by indigenous Fijians but kept some voting along ethnic lines. The 71-seat house of representatives has 25 seats open to all races, 23 reserved for indigenous Fijians, 19 for Indo-Fijians, 3 for "general electors" (mainly whites and East Asians), and 1 for voters on Rotuma Island. The unelected Great Council of Chiefs, a traditional indigenous-Fijian body, appoints the largely ceremonial president, who in turn appoints the 32-member senate.
Some Fijian media and nongovernmental groups have criticized provisions of the 1998 Emergency Powers Act that allow the government to restrict civil liberties. The act allows parliament, during a state of emergency, to censor the press, ban public meetings, and authorize searches without warrants and the seizure of private property. The act gives the president the authority to declare a state of emergency.
The judiciary bolstered its longstanding reputation for independence in March 2001, when the appeals court upheld a 2000 high court ruling declaring the military-backed interim government illegal. The ruling forced the government to submit to elections. Police and soldiers sometimes abuse suspects and detainees and reportedly at times use excessive force while apprehending and interrogating suspects, according to the U.S. State Department's February 2001 report on Fiji's human rights record in 2000. Authorities have punished some officers for these offenses. Fiji's prisons do not meet international minimum standards, with inmates receiving inadequate food and sanitation, the U.S. State Department report said.
Some soldiers who took part in the coup attempt and subsequent army mutiny in 2000 faced retribution at the hands of their comrades. Soldiers in 2000 beat to death five rebel soldiers implicated in the mutiny and abused several other detained rebel supporters, the U.S. State Department report said. Indo-Fijians also suffered during the turmoil. During and immediately after the 56-day standoff at the parliament building, indigenous Fijians looted and burned many Indo-Fijian shops and homes on the two largest islands, Viti Levu and Vanua Levu.
Fiji's private media vigorously report on alleged official corruption and ethical violations, although journalists practice "considerable self-censorship," according to the U.S. State Department report. The Qarase government generally has respected press freedom. By contrast, the ousted Chaudhry government was frequently hostile to the press. It criticized political coverage in Fiji's newspapers, took several journalists to court over their reporting, and refused to renew the work permit of the Fiji Times's editor in chief, a foreign national, on the grounds that local journalists could fill his shoes.
No government has used the Press Correction Act, which authorizes officials to arrest anyone who publishes "malicious" material, or to order a publication to publish a "correcting statement" to an allegedly false or distorted article. Both the Rabuka and Chaudhry governments, however, brought actions against newspapers over their parliamentary coverage under the Parliamentary Privileges and Powers Act. The journalists ultimately were not punished under the act, which authorizes jail terms of up to two years for breaches of parliamentary privilege.
Fiji has both public and private radio stations, and they generally provide objective news coverage. Television service is limited, making radio a key source of information on Fiji's remote outer islands. The provincial governments hold a majority stake in Fiji One, the lone noncable national television station. It generally provides balanced news coverage.
Fijians have enjoyed greater freedom to hold marches and demonstrations since the nation returned to elected rule. The interim Qarase government denied all requests to hold political protests. Before that, the Chaudhry government often denied permits for large outdoor political meetings and demonstrations.
Credible accounts suggest that ten percent of Fijian women have been abused in some way, according to the U.S. State Department report. Fiji's women's rights movement has called for more serious punishments for rape than those often handed down either by the courts or under traditional practices. The practice of bulubulu (traditional reconciliation) allows the offender to apologize to a victim's relatives to avoid a felony charge. Spousal abuse is also a problem, and police have responded by prosecuting domestic violence cases even when the victim does not want to press charges. Women are underrepresented in government and politics, although they have made significant inroads in the civil service and professions.
Fijian trade unions are independent and vigorous. An estimated 55 percent of the workforce is unionized. Factory conditions, however, are often poor, particularly in the garment and canning industries. The number of tourists visiting Fiji tumbled 41 percent in the year following the May 2000 coup attempt, but tourist arrivals picked up toward the end of this one-year period, the Fiji Visitors Bureau said in July. Tourism contributes about 20 percent of Fiji's gross domestic product and is the top foreign exchange earner.