Changes in Constitution-Making in Fiji Part IV: The 1982 Elections

By Subhash Appana 

Previously published.
Part I. Background to the 1970 Constitution and Early Elections  18 August
Part II: After the 1972 Elections  22 August
Part III – Aftermath of 1977 1 September

 The lessons of 1977 were too serious to be ignored. Ratu Mara had lost the April elections because he tried to work across the ethnic divide without taking any side unequivocally. This did not convince enough of the Indian voters, while the Fijians felt he was too accommodating towards the Indians; they chose to support Butadroka’s nationalist message focusing on repatriating the Indians back to India on British expenses. Mara thus had to take a hardline stance and allow open criticism of the Indians in September 1977 – Senator Inoke Tabua and Ratu Tevita Vakalalabure had a field day with this.

Butadroka’s anti-Indian fire was outdone and doused, and the Alliance was once again at the helm of both ethnic Fijian politics as well as the Fiji government. Mara also felt that the fragmented NFP – Dove and Flower – gave the Alliance a serious shot at finally winning an Indian communal seat in that election. When the Indian Alliance failed to deliver, it was suddenly seen as a useless appendage rather than one of the three legs of the Alliance Party. Alliance stalwarts Sir Vijay R Singh and James Shankar Singh were to bitterly complain about this later. Despite this, both Ratu Mara and Jai Ram Reddy realized that the nature of politics had changed in Fiji and coming to the 1982 elections there was need for new focus and new directions. To this end, Reddy managed to patch up the fractures within the NFP and struck up a working relationship with Ratu Osea Gavidi’s Western United Front.

He also got his team to prepare a comprehensive 82-page elections manifesto. Ratu Mara, on the other hand, continued to allow sporadic outbursts of anti-Indian barrages from party stalwarts as he stoked the flimsily-hidden flames of division within the NFP. He also hoped that the lessons of 1977 and 1969 - when members of the Fijian Association wing of the Alliance Party marched through Suva demanding repatriation of Indians – would clearly show that Fiji couldn’t do without his leadership. This was the basis of the Alliance slogan of “peace, progress and prosperity”. It clearly said that for Fiji’s progress Alliance rule under Ratu Mara’s leadership was not negotiable.

The centralization of Mara’s leadership as an election strategy was well grounded in the contextual realities of the time. Lessons had been learnt in 1968 when following that year’s by-elections, won resoundingly by the NFP, marginally violent agitation followed in Suva. When that cauldron bubbled, Mara had strategically retreated to Lau only to re-emerge as an indispensable force for stabilization.

Then in 1977, the same happened when the NFP imploded and Mara steered the country back to stability. His leadership was thus centralized and pitted in the 1982 elections against the NFP manifesto. To dramatize this, he threatened to go back to his traditional seat of power in Lau and live out his life in peace. There is one other development that clearly showed that by 1982, enough changes had taken place in the context to warrant a relook at the political platform/direction employed by the two parties in 1972 and 1977 – there was serious talk of a government of national unity. The Alliance's Dr. Ahmed Ali prepared a detailed paper to this effect in 1979. This was however, used to show lack of serious inclination in Ratu Mara and insincerity in Reddy. Both parties girded for battle and the NFP appeared to be gaining the upper hand in the early stages when Reddy took on the Alliance on policy matters head-on.

Then he made a serious blunder by saying that Mara was so desperate that he’d accept the invitation to inaugurate even the smallest house. This speech was in Hindi and “small house” is colloquial for toilet. Alliance strategists quickly seized on this and declared that Reddy had insulted a high chief and the vanua by saying that he’d stoop to opening toilets for votes. Moreover, the Reddy speech was made in Labasa where Mara had earlier opened the King Fahd Islamic Library. Key Muslims seized on this and raged that Reddy had likened the library to a toilet. Suddenly the elections had lost its issues/policies focus and the NFP was under siege from two fronts. Reddy then went into desperate damage control, but the genie of race was again running rampant around the country.

It was at this stage that the Australian Four Corners program zoomed in on Alliance use of Australian aid money to boost its campaign. A secretive report had been prepared by a group of foreign strategists – Alan Carroll, Dr. Jeffrey Race, Jeff Allen and Rosemary Gillespie – to direct the Alliance on how to win the 1982 elections. The Carroll Report had enough stink to sink the Alliance as it had been commissioned by party stalwart, Mahendra Motibhai Patel, and had the direct involvement of key Alliance strategists like Dr. Ahmed Ali, Dr. Isireli Lasaqa and Australian consultant Clive Speed. As the Alliance reeled under the implications of the damning Carroll Report, Reddy obtained 400 copies of the Four Corners Australian TV program for distribution as part of the NFP onslaught of 1982.

The Four Corners tape was meant for the Australian audience and in its preliminary remarks stated that Fijians historically “clubbed and ate their way to power”. This provided the Alliance strategists with the age-tested strategy of race, Indian insensitivity, etc. to flay Reddy and the NFP. The Fijians were not uncivilized - an outraged march (another predecessor to the Taukei Movement marches) was held in Lautoka vilifying Reddy. That turned the tide and ethnic voting patterns reemerged as the Alliance won 28 to the NFP’s 24 seats and assumed government. The writing however, was on the wall. What if the Four Corners program had been censored of the damning phrase before being released in Fiji? How had Reddy managed to mount such an overwhelming election campaign against such odds? Could the Alliance survive the next round? Fiji was indeed on the path to real contested democratic elections.

Much had changed in the context, more was to come. The ethnic card appeared to have limited use value; how long could it be relied on? Next, we look at the lead-up to 1987. Keep tuned.

 Subhash Appana is an academic and political commentator. The opinions contained in this article are entirely his and not necessarily shared by any organizations he may be associated with both in Fiji and abroad. Email Sent: 13/9/12


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