After a conference in Nadi last month attended by more than 400 delegates from all affiliates of the Fijian Trade Union Congress (FTUC), Fiji’s trade unionists have begun forming a new political party. Felix Antony, secretary of the FTUC and a one time a Labour Party MP who left the party last year citing a lack of internal democracy told Radio Australia;
“The people of Fiji and the workers of Fiji have little choice and what we need really is a political voice that represents a cross section of people and more so the workers of Fiji. It’s really a necessity that drives the trade unions at this time to consider a political movement and a political party.”
Fiji’s union movement is the largest democratic organisation in the country and a truly multi-ethnic institution in a country where the legacy of colonialism has been ethnicity-based politics. The Labour Party, also founded by the FTUC and maintaining close links until recently, has been a multi-ethnic party but Anthony, who is Indian, believes that it has become an Indian party, and is now represented mainly by people from just one union, the National Farmers Union and colleagues of leader Mahendra Chaudhry.
Antony said that the meeting indicated the diversity of the union movement in Fiji; “we had a very good mix of union activists and office bearers present. In fact, unlike other political parties, there is no need for the trade union movement to pretend to be multi-racial. We’ve always been”
It’s not yet been decided if the new party will stand in the September 2014 elections announced by the interim government, or if it would cooperate with the other parties who are coordinating their approach to standing in the election. The union movement has been one of the strongest critics of the regime in Fiji.
“The current Decrees deny workers their most fundamental rights which are part of human rights and attempt to decimate workers unions and all the gains that workers have made through decades of struggle.” Wrote Antony in a press release. “Such onslaught by the Regime and aided by some Employers is unprecedented. The uncertain political climate is seen by some employers as an opportunity to turn the clock back on workers and their unions. The FTUC remains firmly committed to oppose any such measures and will do all within its power and influence to protect workers and their families. All options are being considered.”
Just days after the announcement of the new party, interim Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama has issued a decree banning trade union officials from becoming political party officials. The decree also increases the number of members required to register a political party, from 180 to 5000- this in a nation of 870,000.
Antony called the decree “a grave injustice and breach of human and workers’ rights.” Adding that the new rules were “tantamount to telling workers of this country that they cannot have a political voice of their own and a direct attack on… This decree is about controlling all political activity and parties and does little to promote true democracy.”
The Bainimarama regime also rejected a draft constitution drawn up by a commission led by Kenyan law professor Yash Ghai after the input of 7,000 public submissions. Bainimarama described the draft constitution as an appeasement to racist divisions in Fiji, however it advocated a single national electoral roll, with seats allocated by proportional representation, rather than the status quo of ethnic-based seats.
Opposition to the constitution seemed to come from the military, as it would have weaken their power and included a clause that would permit soldiers to disobey illegal orders, such as taking part in a coup. “Soldiers sign an oath to follow orders and they will at all times abide by it,” said Colonel Mosese Tikoitoga, the military’s No 2. Land Force Commander.
Tikoitoga rejected any downsizing of the armed forces, stating that the military were cleaning up the government system and would not stop. “There is no turning back”. In the army’s 100-page submission to the constitution commission, they insisted all the decrees it had imposed since seizing power -84 so far- be retained rather than abolished or amended as proposed in the commission’s draft.
It remains to be seen what sort of politics the new party will practice, it appears that it will be similar to the Labour Party a few years ago. That said, the Fijian labour party has maintained a firm connection to the working class unlike their New Zealand counterpart, yet the FTUC bureaucracy shares the same fallacies as union leaders elsewhere, making it unlikely the new party will be advocating class struggle ahead of collaboration.