The Fiji Labour Party this month observes the 25th anniversary of its birth, marking 25 years of dynamism at the centre stage of Fiji politics.
These 25 years have been momentous – we have tasted the sweet joys of success and the pain of despair and deprivation but through it all we have resolutely and courageously stood up to oppression and injustice when our legitimate right to govern was unlawfully snatched away from us or whenever the rights of our people were trampled on.
Pics: (left) Dr. Timoci Bavadra: First Labour Prime Minister 1987 and Party President
(right) Jokapeci Koroi – FLP President
(below)Mahendra Chaudhry: Labour Prime Minister 99/2000; Secretary-General
The ultimate success of any political party is the support it receives at the grass roots. Twice in the past 25 years (1987 and 1999), we have taken over the helm of national leadership following resounding electoral victories in free and fair elections, and on two other occasions (2001 and 2006) we were the victims of systemic electoral manipulation and fraud.
In 1987, the fledgling FLP led by Dr Timoci Bavadra, won the elections in coalition with the National Federation Party, putting an end to 17 years of rule by Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara’s Alliance Party. Our victory was short-lived as vested interest groups plotted to overthrow the Bavadra Government after a mere month in office, in Fiji’s first army executed coup d’etat on 14 May 1987.
Released after six days of house arrest, members of the ousted Bavadra Government immediately went on the offensive mustering international support for its cause and fighting for the restoration of human rights and democracy on the home front. It forced the powers that be to a round table conference culminating in the Deuba Accord of 24 September 1987 which set up a government of national unity under the combined leadership of the coalition partners and the Alliance.
Fiji’s second coup by army strongman Sitiveni Rabuka was executed the next day. This time it was vicious. The army took over control. Many political leaders, judges, academics and other activists including a few journalists, were rounded up and imprisoned. Fiji was completely cut off from the outside world through a telecommunications blackout while media outlets were shutdown for 40 days.
The fight back to democracy under the oppressive and authoritarian rule that followed, was a long and arduous battle. Labour executives were continually harassed and persecuted – their homes and vehicles were smashed and they were often detained by the Police for long periods.
Even after a semblance of parliamentary democracy was restored with the 1992 general elections under the extremely racist 1990 constitution, Labour continued to openly agitate for true democracy and constitutional reform.
Its 12 years of advocacy for people’s rights and interests in the face of extreme adversity and persecution, reaped huge rewards in the 1999 general elections held under the revised 1997 Constitution. Labour, as head of the People’s Coalition, took over the reins of power following a stunning election victory. It formed a multiracial government under Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, based on the power sharing provisions of the new Constitution.
The People’s Coalition Government during its one year in office ushered in significant social and economic reforms to provide relief to the poor, upgrade infrastructure and revive the ailing economy. It left a record of good governance, unparalleled economic growth at 9.6% of the GDP, high rate of employment, prudent and disciplined management of State affairs and finances, and a low inflation rate of 0.2%.
But the Labour-led government once again fell victim to greed, racist propaganda and a conspiracy by vested interest groups and was removed from office on 19 May 2000 in a takeover at Parliament, culminating in the 56-day hostage crisis.
Even though the rebels were eventually crushed, the People’s Coalition Government was not restored to office. Instead, an interim government was installed and fresh elections held in September of the following year. This time, the powers that be rigged the polls to make sure Labour would not win. This was done through a manipulation of the voter registration process and tampering with ballot papers at the polling stations, not to mention the $30 million pre-election vote buying scheme known as the Agricultural Scam.
The incoming Prime Minister, Laisenia Qarase, refused to honour the provisions of Section 99 of the 1997 Constitution on power sharing, depriving Labour of its mandate, as the second largest political party, to share in the governance of the nation .
We eventually won the right to participate in Cabinet, after several long drawn court battles, almost on the eve of the next general elections scheduled for May 2006. But had to decline participation because of the allocation of insignificant portfolios to the Labour MPs.
The 2006 elections were once again marred by massive manipulation of the voter rolls and the voting process – the integrity of the 2006 polls was clearly suspect. Even then, the encounter was very close with Labour losing two crucial Open seats in the Central Division by a very narrow margin – again through manipulation of the electoral process.
This time around, Qarase offered Cabinet positions to Labour in line with the Constitutional requirements but his ill-won victory was short-lived, however. Barely six months after he took office for a second term, his government was ousted by Army Commander Voreqe Bainimarama, in Fiji’s fourth coup d’etat.
FLP condemned the extra-constitutional takeover of power but accepted the need to help the President return Fiji speedily to democratic rule. Three Labour executives accepted the President’s invitation to join the interim Cabinet with Labour Leader Mahendra Chaudhry taking the important portfolios of Finance and Sugar. The other two were Tom Ricketts as Minister for Tourism, Trade & Commerce and Lekh Ram Vayeshnoi as Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Development and Labour & Industrial Relations
However, with elections then scheduled for March 2009 or thereabouts, the three Labour Ministers quit in August 2008 to concentrate on the build up to the elections.
On 10 April 2009, the President abrogated the Constitution, dismissed the judiciary and imposed the Public Emergency Regulations, in what it described as the new Legal Order. Elections were deferred to 2014. The PER paved the way for widespread suppression of human rights, including denial of the right to expression, assembly and association. All political activities are banned and there is rigorous censorship imposed on the media which means no criticism or adverse statements on the interim government’s policies and actions. Nor can such matters be taken to court because of restrictions placed on the jurisdiction of the Courts.
Despite this, the FLP continues to oppose the oppressive and arbitrary policies of the (military) government and pursues its struggle for a return to democracy and constitutional rule.
Today it is the only political party that is still actively in contact with the grassroots, and taking a stand on issues of national importance.
But then, that has always been the strength of the Fiji Labour Party since its inception. We have never baulked at carrying out our responsibilities as the true advocates of the people, particularly the poor, the downtrodden, the workers, the farmers and the small businessmen.
Over the past two decades and a half, the FLP has uncompromisingly upheld its founding principles of democracy, multiracialism, good governance, social justice and equity. We exemplified this during the brief periods when we held power, and in the intervening years, through our struggle for democracy and the rights of our people.
This is no doubt why we continue to remain strong, active and united today when many others have fallen along the way. We have witnessed the demise of the National Federation Party, the Alliance Party, the SVT, the SDL and other smaller groups in our journey through these 25 years.
Unfortunately, under the current oppressive climate, FLP has been denied the permit to hold celebrations to mark our silver jubilee.
But, nonetheless, we proudly acclaim our 25 years of dedicated and fearless service to the people of Fiji, regardless of race, colour or creed, and despite all the odds. Our strength lies with the people.