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Fijian Court Rules Against Prime Minister - 2002-02-15

In Fiji, the Court of Appeal has ruled the nationalist Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase acted unconstitutionally, when he denied the mainly ethnic-Indian Labor Party a place in government. The court's decision casts doubt on the future of Mr. Qarase's all-indigenous Fijian administration.

The appeal court in Fiji has ruled that Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase violated the constitution when he failed to offer the Labor Party posts in his government.

Mr. Qarase's Fijian Peoples' Party won 31 seats in Parliament in September's general election, while the Labor Party won 27. Under the 1997 multi-ethnic constitution, any party with more than eight seats in Parliament is entitled to representation in the government.

But Prime Minister Qarase has argued that he was under no obligation to accept members of the Labor Party into his cabinet because their policies were diametrically opposed and it would lead to political deadlock. But the five appeal court judges rejected that argument.

The decision now technically clears the way for members of the ethnic-Indian dominated Labor Party to take their place in government. But Prime Minister Qarase could forestall the move by resigning and calling a fresh election.

If that happens, it would heap more political uncertainty on a country that has still not recovered from a nationalist coup two years ago. The Labor Party's current leader, Mahendra Chaudhry, Fiji's first ethnic Indian prime minister, was ousted in that coup in May 2000.

Meanwhile accused coup leader, George Speight, is scheduled to go on trial on Monday. Mr. Speight and 11 other defendants have been charged with treason. They have been held in custody on a prison island for the past year and a half. Mr. Speight has always insisted the Chaudhry administration was the target of his nationalist uprising because it was slowly stripping away the rights of Fiji's indigenous majority.