President of Military-Led Fiji Plans to Step Down

Military-led Fiji announced Tuesday that its aged and ailing president will step down later this week and be replaced by a former army commander, a move observers say will consolidate the military's rule in this South Pacific nation.

Self-appointed Prime Minister Commodore Frank Bainimarama, who
took power in a bloodless 2006 coup, said President Ratu Josefa
Iloilo will retire on July 30. Vice President Ratu Epeli
Nailatikau, a former military chief, will serve as acting president
until the Cabinet and chief justice decide on a replacement.

Bainimarama said the 88-year-old Iloilo had informed him of his
decision to step down during a visit to Government House on
Tuesday.

Iloilo "demonstrated strong leadership of the country
throughout difficult and challenging times," Bainimarama told
reporters. "His Excellency has served Fiji with fortitude and
strength."

Iloilo, who has been president since late 2000, was widely seen
as being under the influence of Bainimarama even before the coup,
when the military chief toppled the elected government of then
Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase.

Iloilo announced Bainimarama's appointment as prime minister
after the coup, and in April, thought to be acting on Bainimarama's
instructions, he withdrew Fiji's 1997 Constitution, fired the
country's judges and imposed media censorship under continuing
emergency regulations.

He also announced that Fiji would delay its return to democracy
- holding elections in September 2014 rather than 2009 as had
earlier been promised.

But observers in Fiji say his replacement by Nailatikau, a
former army commander who helped guide Bainimarama's rise to
military power, only underscores the regime's dominance and could
strengthen it.

Nailatikau was named vice president in April when the former
office holder was ousted for questioning military rule.

With no constitution in place, the president has absolute power
and rules by decree, but is widely viewed as answering to
Bainimarama.

Prior to the 2006 coup, the president and vice president were
appointed by Fiji's traditional chiefs. That power now rests with
the Cabinet and chief justice, who are seen as subordinate to
Bainimarama.

The move comes shortly before a group of foreign ministers from
the 53-nation Commonwealth meets in London Friday, where it is
expected to recommend Fiji's suspension from the grouping for
breaching its democratic principles.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully, one of the six
ministers at the Commonwealth review, said the latest move in Fiji
was "another ... in an array of illegitimate actions" by the
regime.

"There is a full suspension from the Commonwealth imminent at
some stage, but it may be that Commonwealth ministers take a little
time in getting to that point," he told New Zealand's National
Radio Wednesday.

Fiji has been suspended twice before - after its twin military
coups in 1987 and after its third coup in 2000.


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