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Friday, 15 February, 2002, 08:40 GMT
Fiji PM loses crucial legal battle
Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase takes a seat with his new government in September 2001
PM Qarase could resign and call a fresh election
A court in Fiji has ruled the indigenous government of Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase must include members of the opposition sparking fears of a nationalist backlash.

The opposition Fiji Labour Party brought the action before the appeals court because it said the constitution guaranteed it ministerial representation.

Under the country's 1997 constitution, any party winning more than 10% of seats in parliament should also be given a place in the cabinet.

Labour's leader, former Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry
Mr Chaudhry is backed by ethnic Indians
The Labour Party, which is dominated by members of Fiji's ethnic-Indian community, won 27 seats in the 71-seat chamber in last September's election, yet was not awarded any cabinet posts.

Labour leader Mahendra Chaudhry, who was deposed in a nationalist coup attempt in 2000, has said his party should have been given at least six of the 21 cabinet positions.

The panel of five judges unanimously agreed that Mr Qarase's move to exclude Labour from his cabinet was a clear breach of the constitution.

They rejected the prime minister's arguments that he was under no obligation to include Labour members in his coalition government because their policies were diametrically opposed.

Mr Qarase insisted that to follow the letter of the constitution would have led to an unworkable government.

Racial divide

The BBC's regional correspondent, Phil Mercer, says the court's decision to find in favour of Mr Chaudhry technically clears the way for members of his party to take their place in government.

The prime minister has said he is considering an appeal against the ruling.

However he could take pre-emptive action by calling a fresh election, which would heap more political uncertainty on a country that has still not recovered from the violent unrest of two years ago.

Fiji's racial divide will be highlighted again next week with the scheduled trial for treason of coup leader George Speight and 12 co-defendants.

Mr Speight says the Chaudhry administration was the target of a nationalist uprising because it was slowly stripping away the rights of Fiji's indigenous majority.

former Fijian Prime Minister, Mahendra Chaudhry
"The court has ruled in favour of the Fiji Labour Party"
See also:

13 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
Fiji to abolish death penalty
08 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
Fiji rebel kicked out of parliament
02 Oct 01 | Asia-Pacific
Fiji returns to democracy
12 Sep 01 | Asia-Pacific
Fiji PM defies constitution
09 Sep 01 | Asia-Pacific
Analysis: Fiji risks new ethnic gulf
05 Sep 01 | Asia-Pacific
Fiji coup leader becomes MP
31 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Who is George Speight?
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