The Contemporary Pacific 12.2 (2000) 507-515
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Melanesia in Review: Issues and Events, 1999 *
The year 1999 marked the end of an era in Fiji's politics. Few events were more momentous and unexpected than the overwhelming electoral victory of the Fiji Labour Party and its coalition partners in May and the swearing in of Labour Party leader Mahendra Chaudhary as the country's first Indo-Fijian prime minister. With a new government taking office, there occurred an upheaval in Fiji's political leadership not seen since 1987. Exiting parliament were Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka and National Federation Party (NFP) leader Jai Ram Reddy, a veteran of Fiji's politics for the past quarter century. Also consigned to the political wilderness was the NFP itself, after failing to win a single seat in the new parliament.
The prospect of a general election in 1999, conducted under the provisions of the 1997 constitution, had always promised to make this a particularly interesting year. The introduction of open seats and the alternative vote electoral system compelled parties into forming multiracial alliances. In 1998 two rival coalitions emerged. The first combined the ruling Soqosoqo ni Vakavulewa ni Taukei (SVT) party with the Indo-Fijian based NFP and the general electors' United Generals Party (UGP). The other was a marriage between the mainly Indo-Fijian based Fiji Labour Party (FLP), the Fijian Association Party (FAP), and the western Viti Levu-based Party of National Unity (PANU)--the so-called People's Coalition.
The partnership that had been forged between the SVT's Rabuka and NFP's Jai Ram Reddy during the review and promulgation of the new constitution flowed into other areas of cooperation. The parties agreed to a seat-sharing formula in early 1999 that would see the SVT contest all Fijian communal seats and 14 open seats, and the NFP all Indian communal seats and 11 open seats. The UGP was given all 3 general communal seats and 2 of the open seats allocated to the SVT. There was also agreement that in the event of a SVT-NFP-UGP victory Rabuka would become prime minister, while Reddy would be deputy prime minister.
No such agreement on seat sharing or leadership was reached by the People's Coalition, a fact that was heavily exploited by its opposition in the election campaign that began in April. While the SVT-NFP-UGP presented itself as the more solid and stable coalition, it branded the People's Coalition "a sham" and warned voters that its members would fight over the position of prime minister if they won. To the People's Coalition, however, this was not an issue. The prime minister would be chosen once the results were in. The Labour Party also countered by attacking the SVT-NFP-UGP Coalition for not having a single campaign manifesto (unlike the People's Coalition). This exposed a fundamental weakness in the alliance between the [End Page 507] SVT and the NFP that Labour in particular was keen to exploit. With the SVT campaigning on its record in office, the NFP was faced with the dilemma of having to "go soft" on its partner's policies, which it had previously derided while in opposition. Thus its campaign was confined to the more intangible and somewhat vague areas of multiracialism, forgiveness, and the new constitution.
The NFP also directed its fire at Labour's willingness to allocate its preferences not only to its coalition partners but also to a newcomer on the campaign trail: the Fijian-based Christian Democratic Alliance or Veitokani ni Lewanivanua Vakarisito (VLV). This emerged as the "third force" in the election, fielding a number of prominent and well-connected Fijian candidates. They included a former army commander, Ratu Epeli Ganilau; a senior civil servant, Poseci Bune; and Adi Koila Nailatikau, the daughter of President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. While the VLV seemed torn between moderates and conservatives (especially on such issues as reactivating the Sunday ban and declaring Fiji a Christian state), it nevertheless stood united on its principal goal of unseating the ruling SVT.