The Contemporary Pacific 14.2 (2002) 439-446
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Department of Politics and History, University of the South Pacific
Fiji seemed to come full circle in 2001. The year began with the nation nervously awaiting the outcome of a Court of Appeal hearing on the fate of the interim government installed after the 2000 coup. It ended in a similar way, with the same Court of Appeal preparing to rule on the future of the newly elected government of Laisenia Qarase. Throughout 2001, Fiji's political course followed surprising and at times startling directions, as the country picked its way through the debris and rubble left by the crisis of 2000.
The legal challenge to the interim government had come when dairy farmer Chandrika Prasad, whose property was stolen and family terrorized after the coup in May 2000, successfully obtained a ruling in the High Court in November 2000 that declared the 1997 constitution extant and the interim government without any legal basis. The government appealed the ruling to the Court of Appeal because, as Interim Prime Minister Qarase explained, "We need confirmation so that we can progress Fiji further towards parliamentary democracy" (Post,28 Feb 2001, 3).
The lead-up to the Court of Appeal hearing in February was marked by heightened tensions, as nationalist Fijian leaders warned of bloodshed and chaos should the ruling go against the interim government. Ema Druavesi, a spokeswoman for the former governing party (Soqosoqo ni Vakavulewa ni Taukei, or SVT) predicted that "if you force the Gates (High Court) judgement upon the Fijian people against their will our chances of returning to democracy will be destroyed for a long time" (Sun,18 Jan 2001, 1). In an unusual show of unity, Fijian political parties issued a joint statement demanding the continuation of the interim government. They warned that any attempts to "derail Fijian leadership" would be strongly resisted. Meanwhile the Taukei Movement was reported to be mobilizing its supporters to oppose the reinstatement of the 1997 constitution. Provincial councils and chiefs also denounced the intervention by the courts. According to one chief: "We will die defending the President and Interim Government against rulings detrimental to us as a race" (Times,26 Jan 2001, 3).
While a Fiji Times editorial dismissed such threats as "empty political posturing," it pointed to the military as being the final arbiter of the interim government's and hence nation's future. There were indications, in an army briefing to the president leaked to the media, that the military intended to "uphold the rule of law—even if that means upholding the Gates ruling" (Times,24 Jan2001, 1). However, army statements also reaffirmed its "steadfast support" for the president and interim government, and the position that national security remained its "paramount concern." [End Page 439]
It was in this atmosphere of tension and uncertainty that the Court of Appeal began its hearing on 19 February. The interim government's case was that the 1997 constitution had indeed been abrogated according to the doctrine of necessity—to avert further threats to peace and security; and that a new legal order was now in effective control, commanding the acceptance if not approval of a wide section of the population. The respondents (Chandrika Prasad's lawyers) claimed that there was no necessity for the purported abrogation of the constitution—that such a step was "irrational and disproportionate." They further argued that no new legal or political order was in place (the fact that the interim government had submitted to the courts was evidence of that). Nor was the interim government in effective control, since it lacked both legal and political legitimacy.
In a landmark ruling handed down on 1 March 2001 the Court of Appeal dismissed the interim government's appeal. It declared that the 1997 constitution remained the supreme law of the country; that parliament was not dissolved but prorogued for six months; and that the office of president only became vacant on 15 December 2000 with the resignation of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. Accordingly, Ratu Josefa Iloilo was still acting in the position. The court argued...