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Democracy Returns to Fiji

October 1, 2001

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SUVA, Fiji (AP) _ Sixteen months after armed nationalists stormed Fiji’s Parliament plunging this Pacific nation into turmoil, democracy finally returned to Fiji on Monday.

But even as 71 of Fiji’s 72 new democratically elected lawmakers were sworn in amid tight security, there were signs that the country still faces months of political unrest.

The one missing lawmaker was George Speight, the coup leader who won a seat in elections last month despite being in jail awaiting trial on treason charges that carry the death penalty. He has launched a court bid to be released on bail so he can be sworn in later this week.

And Parliament, which is dominated by the nationalist Fijian United Party of Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, then went on to elect as deputy parliamentary speaker an indigenous Fijian under investigation for his role in last year’s coup.

Adding to the country’s ongoing political instability, Qarase’s coalition government is under legal threat with Fiji Labor Party leader Mahendra Chaudhry, who was deposed as prime minister in the May 2000 coup, claiming in court his party was illegally shut out of Qarase’s Cabinet.

Under Fiji’s constitution, which Qarase has pledged to change, any party winning more than 10 percent of seats in Parliament must be offered Cabinet posts. Labor won 27 seats

Qarase refused to let Labor join his administration because he said the ethnic Indian dominated party does not support his hardline nationalist agenda.

Chaudhry, who was held hostage in Parliament by Speight and his armed supporters for 56 days last year, refused to be sworn in as leader of the opposition, pending the outcome of his legal challenge to the validity of Qarase’s Cabinet.

Speight launched his coup saying he wanted to restore power to Fiji’s indigenous people, who make up 51 percent of the 820,000 population. He toppled Chaudhry, who was the first prime minister from the nation’s 44-percent ethnic Indian minority.

Ethnic Indians control much of Fiji’s economy, creating resentment among some indigenous Fijians.

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