Fiji angered by threat of suspension from forum

By Claire Trevett

"Fiji is angry" was the first response from the Fijian interim government to the leaders of its Pacific neighbours warning it risked suspension from the Pacific Islands Forum if it did not hold elections by March.

The Pacific Island leaders yesterday put Fiji on notice that if there was no clear commitment to March elections in Fiji by the end of the year, they will consider suspending the country - in what would be the first suspension in the forum's 39 years of existence.

Last night, Fiji's interim foreign minister Ratu Epeli Nailatikau gave the first response from the interim government, saying "Fiji is angry". He said it was an "unfortunate" statement from the leaders, which did not show an understanding of Fiji. He also claimed the forum was being "misused" by New Zealand and Australia.

Commodore Frank Bainimarama committed to the March deadline at the forum last year but pulled back from it in June this year, saying electoral reforms were needed first. Last week he decided to boycott the forum in Niue this week and threatened to pull Fiji out of the forum if it continued to insist on elections by March.

The forum's unanimous statement yesterday condemns his refusal to turn up at the forum to account for his backdown, and also rejects his claims an election could not be held by March.

Forum chair Toke Talagi said the leaders were willing to work with Fiji, but a "strong statement" was necessary to ensure the forum was not dismissed as a body which "should just be ignored".

Yesterday Prime Minister Helen Clark said if Fiji carried through with its threats to walk out of the forum, it risked losing significant aid and development funding. The European Union has already held back paying a multimillion dollar contribution to the sugar industry because of the coup.

"In practical terms I don't think there's any prospect of Fiji restoring its relations with its very important donors if it goes down a road of refusing to engage with the forum," Helen Clark said. "Were he just now to slam the door on the forum and walk away, that's a pretty powerful message the European Union is going to hear."

However, Mahendra Chaudhary, who resigned this month as a minister in the interim government, told Fijivillage.com the forum would suffer more than Fiji if it was suspended and said it was time island states took an "assertive position" to ensure they were not "pushed around" by New Zealand and Australia.

"I don't think in the long term Fiji has much to lose if it's not a member of the forum. I myself had reservations about the usefulness of the forum."

The unanimity behind the statement also puts paid to Commodore Bainimarama's belief that some of the smaller nations supported him having more leeway over the election date.

Ousted Prime Minister Laesinia Qarase said he hoped the interim government would sit down "without emotions" to consider the recommendation, according to Fijivillage.com. He said it was possible to have elections in the time frame under the constitution.

"The interim government has been making excuses all this time simply for the purpose of delaying elections."

- NZ Herald

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