Leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum gave Fiji military strongman Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama an ultimatum on Thursday to hold democratic elections by March or face suspension from the 16-member regional body.
The leaders laid down their challenge in a communique at their annual summit, in Niue, boycotted by Bainimarama, who ousted Fiji's elected government with a bloodless military coup in December 2006.
He announced this month that he would not hold new elections early next year, as he had promised forum leaders at last year's summit in Tonga.
The communique was unanimous, and host chairman Toke Talagi said it was important the forum maintain its integrity as a regional organization, according to reports from Niue.
It is the first time a member country has been threatened with suspension in the 37-year history of the forum.
Bainimarama, who appointed himself prime minister after the coup, sent a letter to the leaders at the Niue meeting, telling them to keep their noses out of his country's business and threatening to withdraw Fiji from the forum if it renewed its pressure for an early election.
"I will be compelled to tell the people of my country that they must now be prepared to suffer more sanctions and international isolation as we pursue a better, more durable democracy," he wrote.
A group of forum foreign ministers that went to Fiji reported to leaders that lack of political will was the only thing standing in the way of an election next March.
Bainimarama insists that a new electoral system, giving the ethnic Indian minority equal voting rights with indigenous Fijians, must be installed before he will go to the polls. He also wants the right to vet parties and candidates.
The forum leaders said they would send the ministerial group back to Fiji near the end of the year to monitor progress and if the group was not satisfied of a commitment to March elections, it will suspend Fiji's membership, the dpa reported.