CANBERRA (Reuters) - Fiji’s military ruler has announced a draft constitution underpinning a return to civilian rule and democratic elections will be re-written to ensure “true democracy”, sparking criticism from neighbours Australia and New Zealand.
Australia and New Zealand, two of Fiji’s major aid donors, said the move was a setback for democratic reform in the tiny South Pacific island nation, while a Fiji political analyst said it raised questions over promised 2014 elections.
Commodore Frank Bainimarama, who took power in a bloodless coup in 2006, made the announcement in a televised statement to the nation on Thursday night, but did not say what was wrong with the original draft constitution.
The revision was likely to address concerns by senior military officers that the draft curbed military interference in politics by restricting it to “protection of the country from external threats at the request of the government”, said Brij Lal, a Fiji expert at the Australian National University.
Fiji has suffered four coups and a bloody military mutiny since 1987, mainly as a result of tension between the majority indigenous Fijian population and an economically powerful, ethnic Indian minority.
Bainimarama, who imposed emergency laws in 2009 prohibiting protests and censoring the media, promised last year to begin consultations on a constitution to replace one annulled in 2009.
Police last month seized hundreds of copies of the draft constitution, written by a commission funded by Australia and New Zealand.
Under the draft constitution Bainimarama and others involved in the 2006 coup would have been required to take an oath to respect democracy in return for immunity.
Bainimarama said elections would still occur in September 2014, but the ANU’s Lal said Bainimarama appeared to be setting parameters around the pathway to elections.
“The draft did not deliver what the military wanted,” said Lal, adding the military “wanted a controlled election process”. “In Fiji...at the end of the day the military is there to stay.”
New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully said the re-draft was a step backwards on promised democratic reforms and could hamper free and fair elections.
“The fact that they’ve trashed the work of the commission is pretty unhelpful,” McCully told New Zealand radio.
Australia’s Foreign Minister Bob Carr the revision must deliver freedoms of association, speech and the media.
Bainimarama has been flexing his political muscle recently, announcing plans to drop the Union Jack from Fiji’s flag and remove the image of Queen Elizabeth II from the former British colony’s currency.
Additional reporting in WELLINGTON by Naomi Tajitsu; Editing by Michael Perry