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Fiji Supreme Court Rules Qarase Government Unconstitutional - 2003-07-18

Fiji's Supreme Court has unanimously ruled the two-year-old nationalist government of Laisenia Qarase is unconstitutional and must include minority ethnic Indians. Prime Minister Qarase, who promised to abide by the court's decision, must now decide whether to appoint a new cabinet or hold snap elections.

This is a serious blow to Laisenia Qarase. His administration, which came to power one-year after a nationalist coup, has effectively been declared illegal.

After being elected, Mr. Qarase said he considered including the opposition party, led by the ousted ethnic Indian prime minister Mahendra Chaudhry, but policy differences were too great. He said the 1997 constitution's powersharing arrangements, meant to ease ethnic tensions, would lead to unworkable government in practice.

Friday, the five-judge Supreme Court disagreed.

In a 60-page ruling, all judges decided Mr. Qarase's exclusion of his political rivals was unconstitutional. Under the law, larger opposition parties must have representation at the top level of government in proportion to how well they do at the polls.

Mr. Chaudhry's Fiji Labor Party won almost 40 percent of seats in Parliament in 2001 and, therefore, is entitled to up to eight cabinet posts.

Mr. Qarase has promised to abide by the court's decision but the stability of his administration will now come under pressure.

His rival, Mr. Chaudhry, wants assurances the prime minister is committed to multi-party government. "It is a question now of whether leaders are prepared to swallow their ego and work in the national interest or must they persist with their own agendas at incalculable harm to the nation," he said.

Instead of inviting Labor into the cabinet after an election in 2001, Mr. Qarase formed a coalition with the Conservative Alliance. It is a hard-line indigenous party closely associated with George Speight, the failed businessman who led an armed coup against Mahendra Chaudhry, the first-ever ethnic Indian prime minister of the South Pacific island nation. Speight is serving a life sentence for treason.

Indians, imported by the British to work on colonial sugar plantations more than a century ago, make up 44 percent of the population. Their relative wealth and business acumen have fueled disaffection among indigenous Fijians.

Mr. Qarase now must decide to revamp his cabinet or hold costly elections, something he said he does not want to do since Fiji's tourism economy is still trying to recover from the 2000 coup.