- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 14, 2009

SUVA, FIJI (AP) - Fiji’s military ruler accused expatriate judges Wednesday of trying force him to call elections under an outdated voting system, while the central bank slashed the country’s currency value to boost exports amid the political turmoil.

Commodore Frank Bainimarama, who seized power in a 2006 coup and launched a fresh crackdown in the past week after a court ruled his government was illegal, said his latest actions were justified and that he has the support of the people.

In his first interview with foreign media since the constitution was abolished and a state of emergency imposed on Friday, Bainimarama implied that the three Court of Appeal judges who ruled against him last week were biased against his government.

“It was quite clear that all they wanted was to force us to go into elections which we didn’t want under the old system,” Bainimarama told New Zealand’s National Radio.

The court panel was comprised of expatriate Australians _ a common practice in South Pacific countries where senior lawyers are in short supply _ and Bainimarama accused them of making their decision “long before they got to Fiji.”

Bainimarama says he will hold elections to restore democracy only after he rewrites the constitution and electoral laws to remove what he says is racial discrimination against the country’s large ethnic Indian minority.

He plans to hold elections by 2014 and has repeatedly told outsiders he will not rush the process, but has not explained why it would take so long. Critics, including the Australian and New Zealand governments, have depicted him as a virtual dictator intent on maintaining power.

Under the now-revoked constitution, Fiji voters cast ballots on communal lines, with indigenous Fijians, ethnic Indians and “others” voting on separate voter rolls for separate lists of candidates to represent them in the Parliament.

This meant indigenous Fijians, who make up the majority of citizens, have generally dominated the race-based electoral system. Ethnic Indian-dominated parties won power and held office briefly in 1987 and 2000 because some Indian lawmakers were able to successfully run for Fijian-designated seats. However, those governments were ousted in coups.

Indigenous Fijians make up about 55 percent of the population, while Indian Fijians originally brought to the country as laborers in the 19th Century by colonial ruler Britain are now about 37 percent.

Bainimarama, an indigenous Fijian, insists all Fiji citizens are equal and has consistently attacked what he calls “racist” laws and policies implemented by the indigenous Fijian-backed government that he ousted from power.

Bainimarama said polling by his government showed 64 percent of the people supported his reforms.

In the latest crackdown, foreign journalists have been expelled and censors posted in domestic media newsrooms, and all judges and some senior bureaucrats have been fired.

President Ratu Josefa Iloilo, a Bainimarama ally, is ruling by decree.

The Reserve Bank of Fiji said Wednesday that Sada Reddy had been appointed by decree as the bank’s new governor, a day after the former head Savenaca Narube was removed.

Reddy announced in a statement Wednesday that the Fiji dollar was being devalued by 20 percent with immediate effect to benefit exporters and boost tourism.

The decision would likely send inflation soaring in the next 12 months but Fijians were being asked to bear that burden “so that our economy can recover quickly,” Reddy said.

Reddy on Tuesday imposed currency controls to prevent a flight of capital out of the country.

The tourism and sugar export-dependent economy has stalled since Bainimarama seized power, and Fiji’s international credit rating was downgraded last month from stable to negative.

International critics say the latest upheaval will leave Fiji even more isolated, with its expulsion from the Commonwealth group of nations and the South Pacific’s trade and diplomatic bloc now “almost inevitable,” Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said Tuesday.

The 53-nation Commonwealth organization and the 16-member forum have been trying to move Fiji back toward democracy.

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