By Christine Rovoi,
The writing is on the wall for Fiji’s main opposition party, says New Zealand-based Fijian academic Professor Steven Ratuva.
His comments come in the wake of the sudden resignation of former Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA) leader Sitiveni Rabuka from Parliament yesterday.
Ratuva said it was expected after Rabuka lost the SODELPA leadership to Nadroga MP Viliame Gavoka just 11 days ago.
Rabuka told Parliament his departure would pave the way for the President, Jioji Konrote, to ask Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama to work with the new leader of the opposition and party members.
Rabuka said he could not continue as opposition leader and an MP because the prime minister did not trust him enough to work with him.
But Dr Ratuva, director of the MacMillan Brown Pacific for Studies at the University of Canterbury, said there was more to it than that.
It also signalled more trouble for SODELPA, which has been rocked with months of tensions which split the party in April.
SODELPA was suspended by the Supervisor of Elections over breach of political rules and the party constitution.
The suspension was lifted 35 days later but factions within the party remain.
On November 27, Rabuka was replaced as leader by Gavoka who had supported his predecessor to remain as SODELPA leader.
Rabuka’s resignation ‘no surprise’
Ratuva said Rabuka’s resignation was no surprise to him.
“It was coming because of the leadership struggle within the party and the multi-layered tensions to do with vanua politics, regional loyalty, personality differences, gender ethnicity and the generational gap,” he said.
“They are all packed on top of each other and Rabuka had to resign as a result of all of these complex tensions within the party.
“The writings were on the wall.”
Ratuva said it was unfortunate because Rabuka had the biggest voter-pulling power in SODELPA.
That was evident at the 2018 election when Rabuka returned to politics and led SODELPA to win 21 seats in the 52-seat parliament, Ratuva said.
He was not sure if Gavoka had the same charisma and mana to pull the voters into SODELPA.
“But certainly Rabuka was [able to pull the voters],” he said.
“And Rabuka could have easily won the next election if he had continued with the leadership of the party.”
Rabuka was elected leader of SODELPA in 2016, succeeding high chief Ro Teimumu Kepa, who publicly disapproved of Rabuka’s nomination to replace her at the time.
On 26 November 2018, Rabuka was appointed as the leader of the opposition to Parliament following the party’s 2018 election defeat.
But this week, Rabuka – who led two coups in 1987 – announced he was leaving the august house.
No-one knows how long for – all Rabuka said was he would go away and ponder his next move.
Reactions have come fast and hard following Rabuka’s resignation, and they have been mixed.
New SODELPA leader Viliame Gavoka said he was shocked and saddened because he looked forward to contesting the 2022 polls with Rabuka by his side.
Gavoka said Rabuka had the firepower to help SODELPA win the election.
“This country needs a lot of institutions to be strengthened and someone like him is someone we can call up for help and he has agreed to do that.
“We are still trying to process this, no doubt at the end of the day we’ll know where we stand.”
Ro Teimumu said Rabuka had left a “huge gap” with his departure from parliament.
The Roko Tui Dreketi thanked Rabuka for his contributions, saying “his shoes would be difficult to fill”.
Ro Teimumu said it took a lot of courage for Rabuka to do what he did.
“He departs the opposition and the parliament with a clean heart and a clear conscious and he is a happy man believing that what he has done was the right thing to do.”
There’s no doubt that the future of SODELPA will determine Rabuka’s next move.
Prime Minister Bainimarama and the attorney-general acknowledged Rabuka’s contributions to the house.
Opposition whip Lynda Tabuya said she supported Rabuka’s move.
Tabuya lost the deputy leader position to Suva lawyer Filimoni Vosarogo when Rabuka was replaced.
MP Mosese Bulitavu said Rabuka’s resignation did not come as a surprise, saying he had “done the honourable thing”.
National Federation Party (NFP) leader Professor Biman Prasad said the NFP had always supported Rabuka and was sad to see him leave parliament.
Road to recovery
Ratuva said SODELPA now had its work cut out, less than two years out from the general election.
SODELPA needed to maintain the support Rabuka had brought to the party, “which it is probably going to lose”, he said.
Although he has said he would remain with SODELPA, Rabuka had options elsewhere if he wanted to distance himself from the tensions within party, Ratuva said.
“He’s got a number of choices either to remain within the party – which means that his role will diminish significantly – or he moves on and joins perhaps the Fiji Unity Party which is growing in terms of its significance and attractiveness to voters at the moment.
“The Fiji Unity Party is the only party now which has a coherent plan for economic rehabilitation and development for the country.
“Led by the former governor of the reserve bank, the Unity Party is well positioned to welcome some of those supporters of SODELPA who are probably looking for alternatives.”
Ratuva said if Rabuka joined the Unity Party, he would take his voters with him and “some of his supporters have been with him since 1987”.
Rabuka was still “seen as a hero to some Fijians, although that may be misplaced… But they are that voting block that Rabuka still has some degree of control over.”
If that did happen, SODELPA would lose that group of voters and the Unity Party could come out on top, Ratuva said, adding that the Unity Party could be the only people who would gain from Rabuka’s departure from SODELPA.
This article is republished by the Pacific Media Centre under a partnership agreement with RNZ.