Commonwealth Suspends Fiji Over Democracy

Fiji's military-led government said Wednesday its suspension from the 53-nation Commonwealth is the price it must pay for its reform of the country's political system, and insisted that it will not hold elections before 2014.

The Commonwealth suspended Fiji on Tuesday after it failed to meet certain conditions such as resuming a dialogue with opposition groups and holding early democratic elections.

Acting Prime Minister Ratu Epeli Ganilau said the suspension was disappointing and unfortunate, but there was no way the government
could meet the Commonwealth's deadline.

"These (international responses) are sacrifices that have to be faced, in order to achieve what we've set out to do. Reforms don't happen overnight, we're talking about major reforms here to the political process," he told Radio New Zealand International.

Ganilau is serving as acting prime minister while self-appointed leader Frank Bainimarama is out of the country.

The Commonwealth, comprised of the United Kingdom, its dependencies, and many former British colonies, ruled in July that unless Fiji met its demands, the nation would face being cut off from all aid from the group and banned from the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

Fiji has been under military rule since Bainimarama, the country's armed forces chief, seized power in a 2006 coup. His government had promised elections earlier this year, but Bainimarama reneged on the promise, saying he needed more time to root out corruption and reshape the country's political system.

Bainimarama said Tuesday that nothing will sway Fiji from its roadmap to hold elections in 2014.

"The Fiji government believes the roadmap is the only path to ensuring sustainable and true democracy, which includes ... to have elections in 2014," Bainimarama told a Fiji radio station.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully said it's difficult to see Fiji making "any speedy progress" toward democracy, respect for the rule of law and human rights - "the glue that holds the Commonwealth together."

"There's really nothing we can do to force Fiji down a path
toward democracy and the rule of law. We just have to patiently
wait for the time when they want to receive international assistance," he told National Radio.

Fiji has had a strained relationship with the Commonwealth in recent years.

It had been left out of Commonwealth meetings since Bainimarama's coup and often has seen its Commonwealth membership restricted.

The nation was first suspended in 1987 following a coup led by Lt. Col. Sitiveni Rabuka, but was readmitted a decade later after he made a formal apology to the queen.

It was again suspended when Bainimarama abrogated the constitution in 2000. It was readmitted the next year, but suspended from the Commonwealth's councils when Bainimarama seized power in December 2006.

Brij Lal, a specialist on Fiji politics at Australian National University, said the full suspension sent a clear message of global opposition to Fiji's political situation.

"It says in no uncertain terms that what the regime is doing is totally unacceptable to the international community," said Lal, who helped draft the nation's 1997 constitution which was overturned by Bainimarama in April this year.

The military chief is expected to meet with the Commonwealth's special representative to Fiji, former New Zealand Governor General Sir Paul Reeves, when he visits Sept. 9.

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