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By GRAHAM DAVIS
(Fiji born and educated Graham Davis is an international award-winning journalist. The following is an edited version of a longer item published on Grubsheet. Mr Davis blogs at grubsheet.com.au)
One person will be watching the current trial of Laisenia Qarase with more than usual interest – his predecessor as prime minister and would-be political partner, Mahendra Chaudhry.
Mr Chaudhry knows that if Mr Qarase is found guilty, he’ll be removed from the political scene and theirs will be the briefest of flirtations.
But if he’s cleared, the SDL leader is someone Mr Chaudhry intends to enlist for the political struggle of his life – trying to derail Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama morphing into a civilian leader at the election in 2014.
The proviso, of course, is that Mr Chaudhry himself avoids any conviction over charges relating to currency laws and tax.
It’s all rather messy even by the usual Byzantine standards of Fijian politics.
But it hasn’t stopped the Labour leader from engaging in some fascinating political manoeuvres in recent weeks, all with a view to getting himself into the best possible position for the 2014 poll.
Leaving aside the question of whether Mr Qarase and Mr Chaudhry are still left standing on the political battlefield, there seems little doubt that Mr Chaudhry wants to avenge his removal in the George Speight coup of 2000 and take up where he left off.
His furious response to rival Krishna Datt’s call for him to stand aside is indicative of a man determined to stand and fight. His main rival, of course, is Commodore Bainimarama, who – if the whispers are correct – could lead a new multiracial party into the election.
But to turn 2014 into a two-man contest by establishing himself as the only credible alternative to Commodore Bainimarama, Mr Chaudhry first needs to neutralise Mr Qarase at the SDL and dispose of Mr Datt, who’s threatening his leadership of the Labour Party.
But Mr Chaudhry must realise that the odds of him ever emerging again as prime minister are stacked against him. Why? Because the entire political ballgame played in Fiji since independence will change in 2014.
The precise rules are being formulated by the current constitutional review.
But because the Government has set some non-negotiable preconditions, we already know that Fiji will have a level electoral playing field for the first time – one person, one vote or equal votes of equal value.
This is the revolution that Commodore Bainimarama has already wrought on Fiji – smashing the race-based system that’s always underpinned local politics.
Broadly speaking, it spells the end of the dominance of communal politicians – people who built their careers on gaining the confidence of their respective races and engaging in the horse trading necessary to secure their gains in national life.
Yes, Fiji has had ostensibly multiracial parties before, such as the Alliance Party and Labour. Yet even they were built on majority support from one or other of the main races – the iTaukei in the case of the Alliance and Indo-Fijians in the case of Labour.
Mahendra Chaudhry’s great achievement was to become Fiji’s first Indo-Fijian prime minister as Labour leader in 1999. Yet he lasted only a year– his reign smashed in the George Speight coup of 2000.
Commodore Bainimarama believes it’s high time for Fiji to forge a new identity more befitting the modern era in which race has no place and everyone moves forward together as “Fijians”.
The historical significance of what he has achieved cannot be overestimated.
He has unilaterally busted the four decade-long paradigm of post-independence Fiji politics by drawing a line under arrangements that most people thought would continue indefinitely.
This alone makes Commodore Bainimarama, not Mr Chaudhry, the front-runner in any election in which race isn’t a factor.
Because by drawing support from all sections of society, whatever their hue, Commodore Bainimarama has the broadest political base.
GRATEFUL TO THE PM
There’s ample evidence that the other races – and especially Indo-Fijians – are grateful to him for his stated policies of inclusion.
And many iTaukei – especially outside the cities and towns – are being won over by a dramatic improvement in the quality of governance and better delivery of services.
One of the great untold stories in Fiji right now is the extent to which some of the most talented of Commodore Bainimarama’s officers – acting especially as District Commissioners – have bulldozed badly needed reforms through at local level and won over even the most trenchant of the Government’s critics.
It’s why traditional ceremonies of apology to Commodore Bainimarama have been a regular feature even in those parts of the country – such as Naitasiri – that were once bastions of opposition to his rule.
The grassroots is responding to Commodore Bainimarama’s conviction that his revolution will fail if it doesn’t provide a better future for ordinary people.
With last year’s Lowy Poll indicating an approval rating of 67 per cent, Commodore Bainimarama will be the man to beat in 2014.
And part of that naturally arises from the baggage his principal opponents are carrying for their own long-term identification with race – Mr Chaudhry with Indo-Fijians and some others, Mr Qarase exclusively iTaukei.
How many other people emerge as viable leadership candidates between now and 2014 is yet to be seen. Many Fijians are craving fresh faces.
But for the moment, let’s just deal with what we know.
Mr Chaudhry surprised everyone in May by suggesting that Labour join the SDL in a joint submission to the Constitutional Commission for the retention of aspects of the 1997 Constitution.
Their common interest is to fend off any threat to their own positions – in short, the weakening of their power – posed by the entire construct of one person, one vote and the imposition of a multiracial level playing field.
That’s why Mr Qarase’s response to Mr Chaudhry’s audacious overture to join forces was “good idea”.
The risk for Mr Qarase – even if he’s cleared of the present corruption charges against him and can run – is that it’s just not in Mahendra Chaudhry’s DNA to be second banana.
Ask anyone in the union movement. Ask Krishna Datt.
Mr Chaudhry is a wily, savvy, ruthless politician who has a Soviet-like insistence on being number one every time and broaches no dissent.
So who would bet on Mr Qarase becoming the dominant figure in any coalition, whatever the numbers? Think about it.
One, the trade union leader with the nous to defeat the tide of history and a political system stacked against him to become the first Indo-Fijian prime minister in Fiji’s history.
And the other, a man so naive – or frightened by those around him – that he stuck to a blatantly racist agenda and seemed genuinely shocked when the military chief who’d been threatening him to back off for months finally cut his legs off.
Let’s face it, Mahendra Chaudhry – the politician and strategist – could eat Laisenia Qarase for breakfast.
Yet before all that happens, Mr Chaudhry is having to deal with a rebellion in his own ranks.
Strictly speaking, it comes from outside because Krishna Datt was expelled from Labour when – as a member of Mr Qarase’s multi-party government – he didn’t obey Mr Chaudhry’s instruction to vote against the last SDL budget before the takeover.
Yet as one of Labour’s founders, a vice president of the party and foreign minister in the ill-fated Bavadra government, Mr Datt still commands significant grassroots support.
He announced that he planned to stand as a candidate in 2014 either for a new party or an existing one.
And the proviso for standing for an existing one – Labour – was the need for a leadership change – Mr Chaudhry.
In a furious response, Mr Chaudhry accused Mr Datt of waging a “political vendetta”, of “misguided ravings” and of “trying to pose as a saint”.
Before Mr Chaudhry can dance with Mr Qarase, he’s going to have to clear the floor of his own disgruntled supporters.
It’s going to be a fascinating few weeks and months – an internal brawl within Labour about Mr Chaudhry linking up with the beneficiaries of the 2000 coup, Mr Qarase – the SDL leader – on trial for corruption and above it all, Voreqe Bainimarama, getting on with the business of government in the sure knowledge that of all three right now, only he is a certain starter for the 2014 poll.
And he hasn’t even announced if he’s standing.