Bite the bullet, Fiji Labour Party
[The Fiji Times, 10 Sep 2001]
The kind of future thatFijiwill have over the next five years (and possibly the next decade or so), will be decided this coming week.
The two dominant political leaders (Qarase and Chaudhry) have previously taken antagonistic stances.
While both have to consider the “arranged marriage” required by the Constitution, the Constitution is quite silent on how the marriage is arranged.
Most commentators have pointed out the advantages for the nation, were there to be a Grand Coalition, running the government for the next five years.
But if the parties fail to show trust, goodwill and a genuine conciliatory desire to co-operate in government, then the whole process may break down.
The election results have made the FLP the undoubted voice for the Indo-Fijian community, and Qarase for the Fijians.
Can FLP’s leadership show more understanding of the pressures that are being faced by Qarase, both as the clear leader of the indigenous Fijians, and as the Prime Minister of the incoming Government?
Can SDL be more understanding of the difficulties faced by the moderates in the FLP camp who are supportive of the FLP joining his government?
Agreement to Participate
At some stage, Qarase will be asked by the President to become Prime Minister. He will then invite FLP to join him in Government, as the Constitution requires.
Qarase is not required by the Consitution to list the Cabinet positions being offered. In all likelihood, Qarase will simply ask for a yes or no answer.
And FLP will have to say yes or no.
It would be unwise of the FLP to attach any pre-conditions. FLP has already established the unfortunate precedence that pre-conditions by the invited party may be interpreted as a rejection of the offer (as the FLP did with the SVT after the 1999 elections).
It may help the FLP leadership to be considerate of the problems that Qarase faces and will face, were FLP to join his government.
Share of Cabinet Positions
There are only two parties entitled to be in Cabinet- SDL and FLP. No other party has a minimum of 8 seats, and no post-Cabinet coalition will entitle others to a seat in Cabinet.
The split between SDL and FLP will be roughly a half, with the SDL obtaining a 2 seat advantage (e.g. with 18 cabinet positions, SDL will have 10 and FLP have 8).
If Qarase gives any Cabinet positions to the other minor parties (to ensure that he has the majority of votes in Parliament), they come out of his share in Cabinet (not FLP’s).
Therefore, almost a half of the Cabinet posts will not be available to Qarase and he will not be able to give Cabinet representation to all the Fijian provinces.
And remember that Qarase was extremely careful to balance provincial representation in the Interim Administration Cabinet (no doubt important in his success in the elections)
As important. there will be at least eight SDL Members of Parliament, who will be denied posts of Cabinet Ministers if FLP joins Qarase’s government.
Qarase is therefore already facing strong pressure from his supporters to discourage FLP participation in Cabinet.
And Qarase must be worried about decision-making in Cabinet.
Within Fijian parties and communities, broad “consensus” plays a big part. The larger more populous provinces pay great attention to the voices of the smaller provinces with much smaller populations. It is not necessarily a numbers game and voting.
With the non-Fijian political parties, the numbers game is more important.
Within Cabinet, the balance between SDL and FLP will depend on the continued support by the minor partners, of SDL positions on issues.
Will the FLP presence in Cabinet reduce decision-making to confrontational, aggressive arguments, with votes to decide?
Could this de-stabilise the alignments of cabinet ministers with their parties?
What would happen if the Prime Minister over-rides collective decision making in Cabinet?
The Pluses for Qarase
Of course, there could also be significant advantages for Qarase were the FLP to join.
The FLP does have some MPs of ministerial material, who could not only address some of the thorny problem areas (such as education), but also put pressure on the other SDL Ministers to perform.
Qarase’s government may also find it easier to tackle a number of vital economic challenges facingFiji, were it to have the FLP in Government.
Reform of the sugar industry would be so much easier if the FLP could facilitate the full co-operation of the farmers, cane cutters, the mill workers and their unions.
Fiji’s corporatisation and privatisation programmes could be more sensibly managed with less social and economic fall-out, were government and unions to reach agreement on the extent, pace and timing of rationalisation.
And probably the most important advantage would be that having the two major parties co-operating in government would give the most powerful signal to potential investors that the economy would not be facing fewer disruptions through political instability or industrial actions by unions.
And if investment took off in all the opportunities in tourism, agriculture, forestry, mining, marine resources, there is little doubt that theFijieconomy would grow by more than 5 percent per year for the next ten years.
Such rates of growth would increase national income, government revenues and expenditure dramatically.
The country could well afford to provide all the funds required for the two major policy areas, which are the pre-occupation of the SDL and FLP: the Fijian Blueprint, and the resettlement of the sugar cane farmers displaced by expiring leases.
Both the SDL and the country would therefore also gain by conciliatory encouragement of the FLP into Government.
Should FLP Accept?
The Labour camp is in intense discussions on whether to accept Qarase’s invitation to be part of Government. The bulk of public opinion has been that FLP should accept.
It is pointed out that being in the Opposition will not enable the FLP to do anything particularly concrete or constructive for their supporters and the country as a whole.
As part of Government, the FLP would be able to work towards better resource allocation towards their Manifesto promises- whether for farmers, workers, or whatever interest group.
Whatever the ministries eventually offered by Qarase. seven or eight of their MPs will be able to perform extremely constructive roles as Ministers in the Fiji Government, with the possibility of establishing a good five year track record which could help them in the next elections.
(The FLP would do well to remember that to a politician there is no such thing as an unimportant ministry).
But while the more substantial MPs on the FLP side are in favour of joining Qarase’s government, there is also opposition.
Strangely enough, there are minor MPs on the FLP side who oppose FLP being part of government, because they personally will not become Ministers (the “dog in the manger” syndrome).
The FLP leader personally may be inclined towards being in Opposition. He may be unwilling to compromise on the FLP Manifesto.
But not forming Government, what ground can there be for demanding full implementation of its manifesto?
And what part of the Manifesto will be achieved through being in the Opposition?
The FLP Leader may be unable to make any concessions to the SDL proposals for the Fijian Blueprint and other affirmative programmes.
However, should the FLP, as a partner in Government not give and take on some policies, in return for some of their own concerns being addressed?
And would not an FLP Government also have been addressing the same indigenous Fijian concerns under some other title?
Unfortunately, the Leader of the FLP may find it difficult to serve under a Prime Minister who he cannot control or dominate.
Even within his own party, Mr Chaudhry’s reputation is one of intolerance towards dissenting party members, even if they are the party heavyweights and even if their concerns may be legitimate.
As a Leader of the Opposition, he will be on full Ministerial salary and other perks (but little for his other MPs). There will be no pressure on him to deliver on any promises, while being totally free to criticise, locally and internationally.
FLP leaders, may, by wearing different hats, also disrupt the economy and society, with strikes and harvest boycotts. This was the trend followed by both the NFP and FLP for much of the last thirty years.
Wise Indo-Fijian leaders, like Jai Ram Reddy, recognised that these antagonistic approaches toFijipolitics achieved little material good, for either the Indo-Fijian population or the country.
Reddy changed his approach towards the Fijian parties and their leadership, resulting in advantages which all can see (even if he paid the ultimate political penalty.)
Does the current leadership of the FLP have the humility and courage to accept being partners in a Qarase Government, in the interests of the Indo-Fijian community and the country?
Time will tell.