Mahendra Chaudhry

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Mahendra Chaudhry
Order:4th Prime Minister
Term of Office
(Prime Minister):
May 19, 1999 - May 27, 2000
Followed:Sitiveni Rabuka
Succeeded by:Ratu Tevita Momoedonu
Date of Birth 9 February 1942
Place of Birth:Nadi
Wife:Virmati Chaudhry (m. 1965)
Occupation:trade unionist
Political Party:Fiji Labour Party

Mahendra Pal Chaudhry (born 9 February 1942) is the leader of the Fiji Labour Party and currently the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament. Following a historic election in which he defeated the long-time former leader, Sitiveni Rabuka, the former trade union leader became Fiji's first Indo-Fijian Prime Minister on May 19 1999, but exactly one year later, on May 19 2000 he and most of his Cabinet were taken hostage by the hardline Fijian nationalist leader George Speight, in the Fiji coup of 2000. Unable to exercise his duties, he and his ministers were sacked by President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara on May 27; Mara intended to assume emergency powers himself (but was himself deposed by the military leader, Commodore Frank Bainimarama). After 56 days in captivity, Chaudhry was released on 13 July and subsequently embarked on a tour of the world to rally support. As of May 2005, his is one of the leading voices raised in opposition to the Qarase government's proposed Reconciliation and Unity Commission, which he says is just a mechanism to grant amnesty to persons guilty of coup-related offences.


Education and early career

Mahendra Chaudhry was educated at Tavua Indian School and Shri Vivekanand High School. He subsequently worked as a research laboratory officer for the Emperor Gold Mine, before becoming an auditor in the Auditor General's office. In 1973, he became Secretary General of the Fiji Public Service Association, and led Fiji's first-ever civil service strike that year.

Political career

Chaudhry helped to launch the Fiji Labour Party in 1985, and was elected to Parliament for the first time in the general election of 1987. He was appointed Minister for Finance in the coalition government of Timoci Bavadra. This government held office for barely a month; on 14 May, Lieutenant Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka deposed the government in the first of two military coups. Chaudhry remained active in the Labour Party, and assumed leadership of the party in 1991 from Adi Kuini Bavadra, widow of Timoci Bavadra who had died in 1989. In the post electoral negotiations of 1992, he made the controversial decision to support Sitiveni Rabuka in Parliament, in exchange for a promise to review the 1990 Constitution, which Indo-Fijians generally regarded as discriminating against them. Rabuka did not follow through on the deal, and Chaudhry and the Labour Party were punished at the parliamentary election of 1994, losing 6 of their 13 seats.

In the mid-1990s, after Rabuka finally did agree to a constitutional review, Chaudhry led campaign to change the electoral system from one based on "communal roles" (with parliamentary seats reserved by ethnicity, elected by voters enrolled as members of particular ethnic groups), to one based on universal suffrage. Eventually, a compromise formula was agreed upon. Meanwhile, the Rabuka government was losing popularity. His admissions of womanizing, together with allegations of corruption in his administration, alienated him from powerful sections of the electorate. Chaudhry, meanwhile, forged the People's Coalition, an electoral alliance consisting of his Labour Party, and three other parties, two of them led by indigenous Fijians disaffected by Rabuka's administration. Another indigenous-led party, the Christian Democratic Alliance, joined the coalition later.

The election of 1999

The 1999 election resulted in a landslide win for the People's Coalition, with 58 of the 71 seats in the House of Representatives. The Labour Party won an absolute majority, 37 seats, in its own right. From the outset, voices both within the coalition and without attempted to persuade Chaudhry to forego the office of Prime Minister in favour of an ethnic Fijian, such as his deputy Tupeni Baba or Adi Kuini Speed (by now, the leader of the Fijian Association Party, part of the People's Coalition), but he refused. President Mara reportedly persuaded indigenous Fijian members of the coalition to accept Chaudhry's leadership. Chaudhry was duly appointed Prime Minister on 19 May 1999. To shore up his support among the indigenous community, Chaudhry appointed indigenous Fijians to two-thirds of all ministerial positions.

Few in Chaudhry's caucus had had any previous political experience, a factor that created difficulties for his government. Extreme Fijian nationalists opposed his administration and stirred up fears in the mostly rural ethnic Fijian population that land reform measures proposed by the Chaudhry government would expropriate their land (notwithstanding constitutional guarantees of indigenous control over five sixths of the land, which cannot be changed without the support of 9 of the 14 chiefly representatives in the Senate). Despite widespread fears of civil unrest, the takeover of the parliamentary complex by George Speight on 19 May 2000 (one year to the day since Chaudhry's appointment as Prime Minister) happened without warning.

See Fiji coup of 2000 and the the linked Timeline, Mutinies, and Aftermath for information on the overthrow of the Chaudhry government.

The election of 2001 and aftermath

When democracy was restored in 2001, Chaudhry fought a hotly contested election, but was defeated by Laisenia Qarase of the United Fiji Party. It is thought that attrition within the Labour Party was a factor in his defeat; high-profile party members like Tupeni Baba had split to form the New Labour Unity Party and he had barely survived a leadership challenge. Mutual enmity between his party and the National Federation Party, the only other political party with significant Indo-Fijian support, prevented a preference-swapping deal. In Fiji's system of transferable voting, such a deal would almost certainly have made him Prime Minister again. (Fiji's electoral laws, modelled on those of Australia, allow the votes of any two or more candidates in a particular constituency to be combined according to the candidates' preferences; voters may specify a different choice by ranking the candidates numerically in the order of their preference).

Chaudhry has since rebuilt the Labour Party, which won several key byelections throughout 2004. He challenged in the courts the refusal of the Qarase government to include his party in the Cabinet; on 18 July 2003, the Supreme Court ruled in his favour, saying that the exclusion of a party with more than 8 seats in the House of Representatives violated the Constitution. Appeals, counter-appeals, and negotiations delayed the appointment of Labour Ministers to the Cabinet, however. The Supreme Court subsequently ruled in June 2004 that the Labour Party was entitled to 14 out of 30 cabinet posts. Qarase announced that he would implement the order, but his refusal to include Chaudhry himself in any cabinet lineup continued to stall negotiations on the composition of the cabinet. Late in 2004, Chaudhry announced that the Labour Party had decided to remain in opposition for the remainder of the parliamentary term, seeing no way to resolve the impasse without making unacceptable compromises. By remaining outside of the government, the Labour Party is able to distance itself from unpopular decisions made by the administration, and seems well-positioned to challenge the ruling United Fiji Party for power in 2006.

Towards 2006

Chaudhry is known for his combative style of leadership, which has won him both admirers and enemies. He remains at loggerheads with the National Federation Party, whose support dropped sharply in 1999 and 2001, but appears to have partially revived in recent times. It would be to his advantage to reach a deal on an exchange of preferences with the NFP, but neither he nor they are presently interested. Whether he will make significant inroads into the ethnic Fijian electorate, less than one percent of whom voted for his party in 1999 and 2001, remains to be seen. He has been successful, however, in attracting several high-profile ethnic Fijians, such as Poseci Bune, to his party.

Chaudhry has expressed alarm at the high rate of emigration from Fiji, especially of Indo-Fijians, and also of educated indigenous Fijians. "If the trend continues, Fiji will be left with a large pool of poorly educated, unskilled work force with disastrous consequences on our social and economic infrastructure and levels of investment," he said in a statement on 19 June 2005. He blamed the coups of 1987 for "brain drain" which has, he said, adversely affected the sugar industry, the standard of the education and health services, and the efficiency of the civil service. This was creating a vacuum that would lead to increased levels of crime, drug abuse, and money laundering, he considered. He lamented the "indications of a growing feeling of insecurity, frustration and disaffection among people of all races at the direction in which Fiji appears to be headed," and said that only way to reverse the trend was to elect a government that would provide stability, raise living standards, and create a climate of confidence for investors and opportunities for job seekers.

Manslaughter conviction

In 1978, Chaudhry was convicted of manslaughter for his involvement in a fatal automobile accident ( He was sentenced to nine months's imprisonment for failing to stop after the accident. After serving only three days of the sentence, however, he was released on a Compulsory Supervision Order (i.e., parole). Prime Minister Qarase drew media attention to Chaudhry's manslaughter conviction and his almost immediate release, in response to Chaudhry's criticism of government decisions to show leniency towards persons convicted of involvement in the 2000 coup, including former Vice-President Ratu Jope Seniloli and Cabinet Minister Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu. Qarase accused Chaudhry and his supporters of "living in glasshouses." "(They) are led by a man who has been convicted by the Suva magistrate’s court for causing the death of a person," Qarase said on 17 April 2005. "Mr Chaudhry himself was convicted sometime back for manslaughter and he was released from prison only three days after serving his sentence on a CSO (Compulsory Supervision Order)." Chaudhry reacted angrily to this attack, saying that there was no comparison between a premeditated act of treason and a mere traffic offence for which he had not been sent to jail (the prison sentence was not for causing death, but for failing to stop).

Personal life

Chaudhry's ancestral ties are with the village of Bahu Jamalpur in Rohtak District, in the Indian state of Haryana. His grandfather, Ram Nath Chaudhry, emigrated to Fiji in 1912 to work on Fiji's sugarcane plantations. Although he later returned to India with his wife, Ram Kalia, whom he had met and married in Fiji, their two sons, Ram Gopal Chaudhry and Krishnan Gopal Chaudhry remained in Fiji. Ram Gopal had fifteen children, one of them Mahendra.

Chaudhry has been married to Virmati since 1965; they have three children and several grandchildren. Unlike the Hindu Chaudhry, Virmati is a born-again Christian (source ( While her husband and son, Rajendra were still in captivity, she announced on 18 June 2000 that she had decided to forgive George Speight.


External link

Preceded by:
Sitiveni Rabuka
Prime Minster of Fiji
1999 - 2000
Succeeded by:
Ratu Tevita Momoedonu

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