Fiji’s military ruler defied international pressure to announce elections by yesterday, confirming that he would not hold them for at least five years and setting the stage for his country’s ouster from a South Pacific bloc.
“I think we made it quite clear that is not going to happen,” military chief Commodore Frank Bainimarama told Australia’s Sky News TV in an interview broadcast yesterday.
“There will be no elections until September 2014,” he said.
Bainimarama ousted the ethnic Fijian-dominated government in a 2006 coup and installed himself as prime minister. He has vowed to rewrite the Constitution and electoral laws to remove what he says is discrimination against the country’s large ethnic Indian minority before holding elections.
The Pacific Islands Forum, a key 16-nation bloc that includes Australia and New Zealand, had given Fiji until yesterday to announce elections for this year.
New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully said there would be “an immediate trigger” for Fiji’s suspension once the deadline passed at the end of the day.
Under the suspension, Fiji would be barred from all the forum’s meetings and lose out on development funding until a democratic government is restored.
“You’ve got a dictator up there now who doesn’t want to listen to anybody else other than himself,” New Zealand Prime Minister John Key told Radio Dunedin yesterday, ramping up his rhetoric against the regime.
“My view is that they will be automatically suspended from the forum and I think you may see similar reaction from other bodies like the Commonwealth,” he said, referring to a group of 53 countries that are mostly former British colonies.
Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said yesterday that Fiji had shown “no intention to return to democracy and on the contrary has torn up its constitution.”
He said because Bainimarama had failed to meet the deadline, Fiji would be suspended from the forum after midnight.
But a defiant Bainimarama reiterated his refusal to schedule polls before 2014 and said there was no need to suspend his country because no one was being killed in the streets.
“If it was up to me, we would remove Australia and New Zealand from the forum. They’re putting undue pressure on the Pacific islands,” Bainimarama said in an interview on Sky News.
He said censorship laws would be extended when they expire later this month, because “we want this calm to continue for a while.”
“If I don’t muzzle the press, is it going to bring extra food on the table?” he said.
“That’s the way things should happen in Fiji — rugby back on the front page,” Bainimarama said.
Bainimarama said within two weeks he would announce a five-year timetable for reforms leading to the 2014 elections.
“We have to get rid of racism in the country in the next five years,” he said, referring to the long-standing conflicts between indigenous Fijians and ethnic Indians. Bainimarama is an indigenous Fijian.
He also called for Australia and New Zealand to be expelled from the Pacific Islands Forum, saying the were putting undue “pressure on the Pacific Islands and that’s not how we operate.”