SUVA, Fiji – Fiji's interim prime minister, who was installed by a military coup, said Thursday it could be two years before elections restore democracy to the South Pacific island.
The country's powerful council of tribal chiefs, meanwhile, refused to back the coup.
Military medic Dr. Jona Senilagakali — who said he only took the job of prime minister because he was ordered to do so by his commanding officer — also said he thought the coup led by Commander Frank Bainimarama was illegal.
Senilagakali said the timing of elections would "totally be up to" Bainimarama.
"Hopefully in 12 months, two years, we'll be able to have a general election," he said.
Disputing Bainimarama's claims to working within the constitution, Senilagakali told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio: "There's no doubt about it, it's an illegal takeover."
Bainimarama has said a military council will rule until he can appoint an interim government that will eventually call elections to restore democracy. Senilagakali's is his only appointment so far.
Tuesday's coup — Fiji's fourth in nearly two decades — was the culmination of a long impasse between Bainimarama and ousted Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase over bills offering pardons to conspirators in a 2000 coup and handing lucrative coastal land ownership to indigenous Fijians.
The council of tribal chiefs declined to recognize the military regime, throwing its support instead behind the South Pacific nation's president, whom it appoints.
The move leaves Bainimarama increasingly isolated with no significant group in Fiji expressing even tacit support for his actions.
In an attempt to consolidate his grip on the country, Bainimarama used his self-appointed powers to remove Fiji's Vice President Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi from his office and official residence late Wednesday.
President Ratu Josefa is still technically the country's president, although Bainimarama said Tuesday that he had assumed presidential powers.
Bainimarama had hoped the chiefs would endorse his caretaker government — thereby giving the takeover a veneer of legitimacy. During previous coups in 2000 and 1987, the chiefs carefully avoided strong criticism of the plotters because they had claimed to be defending the rights of the indigenous Fijian majority over the ethnic Indian minority.
Qarase and Bainimarama are both ethnic Fijians but Bainimarama considers himself as a protector of the rights of all Fijians including ethnic Indians. Qarase, who left the capital on the military's orders, maintains he is Fiji's legal prime minister.
Bainimarama has said he wants a peaceful transition to an interim administration that would eventually hold elections to restore democracy. But he has warned he will use his military might to quickly put down any dissent.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour urged the regime to guarantee Fijians' fundamental freedoms and obey international law.
"The forcible and unconstitutional replacement of Fiji's freely elected government raises serious concerns regarding the county's ability to guarantee human rights," Arbour said in a statement.
Bainimarama said he was acting to defend Fiji's democracy.
"We do not deny that democracy is good for the people," Bainimarama said. "But democracy must not be used to hide corruption."