By Angela Marie Watkins
Impunity Watch Reporter, Oceania
SUVA, Fiji – Fiji will likely be suspended from the Commonwealth bloc, New Zealand said Wednesday — a day after Fiji’s military ruler strengthened his grip on power by replacing the ailing president with a stronger ally.
Commonwealth ministers will consider this week whether to suspend Fiji from the 53-nation group after the military-led government delayed elections until 2014, rather than 2009 as had earlier been promised. Suspension from the Commonwealth would see Fiji lose access to the body’s $7.5 billion aid budget and further isolate the government.
At its last meeting in March, a Commonwealth committee warned Fiji it would be thrown out unless it made progress toward restoring democracy.
Since then, self-appointed Prime Minister Commodore Frank Bainimarama, who seized power in a December 2006 coup, has rejected international demands to restore civilian government by the end of the year. His ally, President Ratu Josefa Iloilo, in April abrogated the constitution, fired the judiciary, censored the media and reappointed the military government for five years.
Bainimarama announced Tuesday Iloilo will retire on July 30. Vice President Ratu Epeli Nailatikau will serve as acting president until the Cabinet and chief justice decide on a replacement. Observers in Fiji say Iloilo’s replacement by Nailatikau, a former army commander who helped guide Bainimarama’s rise to military power, only underscores the regime’s dominance and could strengthen it.
With no constitution in place, the president has absolute power and rules by decree, but is widely viewed as answering to Bainimarama.
Bainimarama says he wants to change the electoral system in the ethnically divided nation before holding a ballot. Under the present system, people in some constituencies can only vote for candidates from their ethnic community.
The 944,000-strong population is made up of 57 percent indigenous Fijians and 38 percent ethnic Indians, according to U.S. government data. Three of the nation’s four coups in the past 22 years were sparked by ethnic tensions.
In the latest crackdown on freedom of speech, the government banned Fijian Methodists from holding their annual conference, saying it was too political and might encourage anti-government sentiment.
The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group will meet in London July 31, according to a statement. The Commonwealth is largely composed of countries with historic links to Britain and includes Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
For more information, please see:
Associated Press – Fiji faces possible suspension from Commonwealth – 30 July 2009
Associated Press – President of military-led Fiji plans to step down – 29 July 2009
Bloomberg – Commonwealth to Consider Suspending Fiji Over Election Delay – 29 July 2009
The New Zealand Herald – Fiji may face full suspension – 29 July 2009