South Pacific: Democracy Prevails In Fiji – OpEd

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By Ravindra Singh Prasad

In a parliamentary vote on December 24, former coup leader Sitiveni Rabuka was elected the new Prime Minister by a slim majority of one after a hung parliament. He replaces another former coup leader and twice democracy-elected Prime Minister, Voreqe Bainimarama.

Fijians are expressing a sense of relief that democracy has prevailed after days of tension when the December 14 general election with a low voter turnout of 68 per cent resulted in a hung parliament. And the caretaker government of Bainimarama called in the army to maintain order claiming indigenous Fijian mobs were attacking minority Indian houses. This claim turned out to be an imagination.

The Fiji First Party of Bainimarama won a plurality, securing 26 seats. But, the newly formed People’s Alliance (PA) of Rabuka secured 21 seats. At the same time, its coalition partner, the Indo-Fijian community-based National Federation Party (NFP) led by former Economics Professor Bimal Prasad, won five. The staunchly Christian Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA), which bagged second place in the 2018 election, retained three seats.

With SODELPA siding with PA and NFP, Rabuka secured the premiership by 28 to 27 votes in the parliamentary vote. Under the deal, SODELPA is expected to get the ministerial portfolios of Indigenous Affairs, Health and Education, which were the central planks of their election platform.

Fiji’s unique electoral system introduced under the 2013 constitution adopted by the Bainimarama government elects Fiji’s 55-member parliament from a single nationwide constituency by open-list proportional representation with an electoral threshold of 5 per cent for any party to be represented in parliament. Thus, Fiji’s former Indo-Fijian Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry missed a seat because his Fiji Labour Party was able to secure only 2.7 per cent of the vote.

It is an ironic twist of political musical chairs; Rabuka led the SODELPA into the 2018 election and was the opposition leader until he was ousted in a party coup in November 2020. Rabuka later founded the PA, which secured the second-highest number of seats in the latest polls. Now, the person who ousted Rabuka from the SODELPA, Viliame Gavoka, has thrown his weight behind a Rabuka-led government.

After hearing of SODELPA’s decision to back a PA-led government, Rabuka, in a statement just before the parliamentary vote, expressed his gratitude to Gavoka.

“It’s a humbling experience, and we are so grateful to the management, the president, the vice president, the party leader, and the board members of SODELPA for arriving at this decision. It is a landmark decision,” said a delighted Rabuka. He added: “A decision that Fiji and students of the history of Fiji will look back upon and acknowledge as the turning point in Fiji’s modern history, to have been accepted as the three-party coalition nominee to be prime minister.”

NFF leader Prasad, expected to be Rabuka’s deputy in a new government, has promised the people of Fiji “a new style of government”, which was the PA-NFF coalition’s election slogan. It reflected the Fijian voters’ desire to change the authoritative style of government under Bainimarama and his deputy Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum.

Many Fijians resented the latter’s arrogant style of governance.

“We want to create a new style of politics, a new style of governance, where we want to be inclusive, where we want to have dialogue, where we will be consulting, where there will be no vindictiveness,” said Prasad just before the parliamentary vote.

“And we are going to unite the people of this country to deliver a government so that we can resolve; we can address, we can work with the people on many of the issues.”

Meanwhile, the People’s Alliance (PA) party general secretary Sakiasi Ditoka has filed a police complaint against Fiji First party (FF) general secretary Sayed-Khaiyum for trying to incite racial violence to remain in power.

Sayed-Khaiyum told a media conference on December 21 that there were reports of stoning incidents in the predominantly Indo-Fijian town of Ba. It demonstrated the divisive character of Rabuka, as he was the man who created a division between the Indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijian minority in Fiji in 1987 when he staged a coup to overthrow a government that was perceived to be controlled by Indo-Fijians.

“The entire rationale of this man has been to divide Fiji to gain political supremacy, and we can see that simmering through again is not simmering through; it’s now boiling. He’s a very divisive character,” claimed Khaiyum. “The Fijian public must be aware that this is what Rabuka represents. And all those who have gone along are very quickly realising that also.”

Rabuka hit back the next day, calling a media conference. He said the outgoing government has reverted to their favourite habit of sowing fear. “Like an anarchist, he (Sayed-Khaiyum) is trying to set the nation alight along racial lines by claiming that racially motivated acts are occurring in Ba,” Rabuka said, adding that they have received confirmation from senior police officers that these stone-throwing claims targeting Indo-Fijians were fabrications.

The outgoing Bainimarama government’s call for the army to come out to the streets to maintain law and order is connected to this claim. But, a Fijian academic has warned against involving the Fiji Military Forces directly or indirectly to maintain security could have far-reaching ramifications internally, knowing their involvement in overthrowing governments, which both Bainimarama and Rabuka know well.

Fijian academic and director of New Zealand’s University of Canterbury’s Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies, Professor Steven Ratuva warned that “given our dark history of military intervention, getting the military involved either directly or indirectly to assist the Police will send out an extremely chilling message to our coup-traumatised population as well as destroy our reputation once more in the eyes of the rest of the world apart from impacting on foreign investment, tourism and wellbeing of the nation”.

Prof Ratuva added social media discourse on details of “threats against minority groups” and campaigns to highlight how all the races in Fiji live in harmony to a large extent should not be ignored. “The people’s verdict and voices need to be respected,” he said. “There is consensus that there’s no ethnic violence contrary to police claims. The military commander, as a respected professional, should maintain his impeccable international status and promises to the people and push back on attempts from outside the military to involve his men.”

The Fijian professor believes that Fiji’s population is traumatised just by mentioning the term ‘military’,  given the history of coups in Fiji. This could also impact tourism and investments during a critical time when Fiji’s economic recovery effort from the financial crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic needs to gather steam under the new government, where its economic team is expected to be led by an Indo-Fijian former economics professor from the University of the South Pacific here in Suva.

IDN

IDN-InDepthNews offers news analyses and viewpoints on topics that impact the world and its peoples. IDN-InDepthNews serves as flagship of the International Press Syndicate Group, partner of the Global Cooperation Council.

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