12 Jul 2008

EU doubts Fiji commitment to election deadline

6:50 pm on 12 July 2008

The European Union has expressed doubt that Fiji will meet a deadline for democratic elections in February 2009, saying the "absence of democratic rule" is a cause for deep concern.

At stake is the restoration of millions of dollars in EU aid, which depends on Fiji keeping its commitment to return to democracy following the December 2006 coup.

The European Commissioner for Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Aid, Louis Michel, said the concerns included "the vulnerability of rule of law and respect for human rights" when democratic control is removed.

"I can never condone a military takeover," Michel said in a statement after the completion of a fact-finding report by a European Union delegation that visited Fiji in June.

"The EU expects the interim government to meet commitments it has taken in these areas and to ensure elections not later than the end of February 2009," the statement said.

"Meeting these commitments will allow the EU to deliver its assistance programme, but there is deep concern that the election timetable is at risk of slipping."

Fiji coup leader and self-appointed interim Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama wants the electoral system in the Pacific island nation overhauled before elections are conducted. He has criticised the current system for entrenching racial divisions between the indigenous Fijian majority and the ethnic Indian minority.

Commodore Bainimarama also fuelled doubts about meeting the election deadline commitment when last month he suspended meetings with Pacific Forum officials through a working party aimed at facilitating the polls.

Pacific forum

A group of six Pacific foreign ministers, including New Zealand's Winston Peters, are to travel to Fiji next week to continue external pressure for a return to democracy at the Pacific Islands Forum.

"Fiji's interim government recently said it would like greater engagement with forum members, and this visit could help Fiji move forward towards elections," Mr Peters said.

He says he will meet with members of Fiji's interim government next week.

In June, Fiji suspended talks with the forum's Joint Working Group, which was monitoring its progress towards democratic elections. Mr Peters hopes the visit will encourage the interim government to resume those talks.

Mr Peters says a promise was made last year that elections would be held by March 2009, and the forum is relying on that.

He welcomes Fiji's appointment of an Acting High Commissioner to Wellington.