Before December 1987, the head of state was the British monarch, as represented by a governor-general. The cabinet, responsible to the parliament of Fiji, consisted of a prime minister and ministers appointed by the governor-general on the former's advice. Parliament consisted of an elected house of representatives and an appointive senate. The electoral process was distinctive in establishing communal, or ethnic rolls, in which only members of a specified group might vote, versus national rolls in which anyone could vote. The senate consisted of 22 members: eight nominated by the council of chiefs, a traditional body that had veto power over bills passed by the house involving native Fijians' customs or land rights; seven by the prime minister; six by the leader of the opposition; and one by the Rotuman Council.
The new post-coup constitution went into effect in July 1990. It established Fiji as a sovereign, democratic republic with a bicameral legislature. Fiji's president was to be appointed to a five-year term by the Great Council of Chiefs, which would also nominate 24 Fijians to the 34-member cenate. Nine seats were guaranteed to Indians and other races, and one to Rotuma. The senate would have veto power over legislation affecting Fijians. The 71-member house of representatives was to be elected every five years by universal suffrage under the communal system. In addition to stipulating that the office of the prime minister must be held by an ethnic Fijian, the 1990 constitution also guaranteed a majority of seats to the Fijian community. This constitution prohibited cross-race voting; that is, Fijians could only vote for Fijians and Indians only for Indians. It provided for an independent judiciary.
The 1997 constitution specifies that the president, who is head of state, must always be a native Fijian. It also gives considerable recognition to the Great Council of Chiefs, which not only nominates and participates in electing the president, but also maintains its responsibility for matters relating to native Fijians. Parliament consists of two houses. The lower, where all legislation must originate, has 71 members. Of these, 46 are communal: 23 for Fijians, 19 for Indians, 3 for general electors, and 1 for Rotumans. The remaining 25 are "open" seats contested on a common roll basis without any reference to ethnicity, either for the voters or for the candidates.
The president appoints as prime minister the member of parliament who commands majority support in the lower house, or house of representatives. The constitution also provides for mandatory power sharing in cabinet. Any party holding more than eight lower house seats is invited to join the cabinet in proportion to the number of seats it holds. The upper house or senate consists of 32 appointed members: 14 nominated by the Great Council of Chiefs, 9 by the prime minister, 8 by the leader of the opposition, and 1 by the Council of Rotuma. Parliament serves for a maximum of four years after a general election though the president on the advice of the prime minister can dissolve it.
In the May 1999 election, the first held under this constitution, the Fiji Labour Party won a stunning victory, gaining 37 seats and an absolute majority of the house of representatives. Rabuka's SVT took only eight seats, and the once powerful NFP won no seats at all. Mahendra Chaudhry, leader of the FLP, became the first Indian prime minister of Fiji. The 1999 election was the first test of the amended constitution and introduced open voting for the first time at the national level.
In the August 2001 election, Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase's nationalist Soqoso Duavata ni Lewenivuana Party (Fijian United Party or SDL) took 32 seats in the house of representatives, and the FLP took 27. In March 2002, Qarase was ordered by the supreme court to allow for 8 seats in the senate from the opposition FLP, as stipulated by the constitution, 4 more than he had originally awarded it.
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