August 24, 2001

Fiji's first elections since the 2000 coup will take place over a week starting tomorrow.

In a remarkable twist in the post-coup drama, rebel leader George Speight has been given permission to stand for election.

Mr Speight has not yet been tried for treason and has not been convicted of any crime. He is held on Nukulau Island off Suva with 12 alleged accomplices.

Observers believe that unless the Labour Party regains power, he will escape trial because the interim government is the beneficiary of his actions. A trial would bring into the open the names of his backers, who are claimed to range from high-ranking Fijian politicians to Indo-Fijian businessmen.

Jonathan Fraenkel, lecturer in economic history at the University of the South Pacific, said it was unreasonable to allow Mr Speight to stand.

"They should have convicted him at least on the minor charges, or as a bankrupt, even if the treason case takes longer," he said. "The danger is that this will provide a focal point for more rebel activity."

But Stewart Firth, professor of history and politics at USP's Laucala Campus in Fiji, said Mr Speight's candidature was legal because he had not yet been found guilty. Professor Firth said Mr Speight was likely to gain considerable support from villagers in his home area.

"Many ordinary Fijians from the rural provinces of eastern Viti Levu still regard Mr Speight as a hero, such were the fears of Indian domination and loss of land that he was able to generate last year," Professor Firth said.

"If the caretaker government under Laisenia Qarase were to lead a coalition after the elections, and if Qarase were to remain prime minister, he would probably pardon Mr Speight.

"His trial for treason is likely to continue only if the key victors in the election come from the Fiji Labour Party led by Mahendra Chaudry or from the well-funded splinter New Labour Unity Party that has formed under the leadership of the ethnic Fijian and former deputy prime minister Tupeni Baba," Professor Firth added.

Philip Cass

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