COMMENTARY: By Graham Davis
“So many detractors were saying, ‘no you won’t get it, the Supervisor of Elections won’t allow it’. I said, ‘well let him just do his work’. And I believe in the goodness of the man. We got it and we’re happy.” — Sitiveni Rabuka, CFL/FijiVillage interview. 8 September 2021
The leader of the new People’s Alliance has given Frank Bainimarama and Aiyaz Sayed-Kahyum yet another masterclass in how to win friends and influence people in the Fijian political context.
Of course, he doesn’t necessarily “believe in the goodness” of Elections Supervisor Mohammed Saneen, who tried to prevent him from contesting the 2018 election and will do his damnedest to try to exclude him from the 2022 election.
Or maybe he does. It doesn’t matter because Sitiveni Rabuka has spoken well of someone who everyone regards as his nemesis and in doing so has presented himself as magnanimous and humble.
Fijians like that and Rabuka knows it. Which makes it all the more astonishing that Frank Bainimarama and Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum still don’t know it after 15 years in power.
It was Rabuka’s humility and forbearance in the face of an ordeal in the courts before the 2018 election that triggered a wave of community sympathy that manifested itself on election day and took the Bai-Kai duo to the brink of defeat.
Readers of my website will know that in the immediate aftermath of the election, I tried and failed to get Bainimarama to realise that the FijiFirst government’s appearance of arrogance — its vei beci, viavialevu attitude to everything — was the prime cause of its electoral collapse.
But they still don’t get it. And having given them a fright in 2018 but still not having learnt their lesson, I suspect that the Rabuka juggernaut is going to bear down on them in the coming months and flatten them like toads on hot bitumen.
Why? Because the Fijian people are fed up with them, not just the usual burden of longevity in government and people tiring of their increasingly tired faces but a visceral distaste for the manner in which they conduct themselves.
Always right. Never wrong. Always contemptuous. Never, ever humble.
Even some of my closest friends say Rabuka cannot win — that the burden of his two coups in 1987 and the hatred and bitterness that lingers — especially among Indo-Fijians – is too much of a cross to bear, let alone such things as the fiasco of the National Bank collapse under his watch when he was eventually elected prime minister.
But politics is more about perception than substance wherever it is practiced in the world. And is equally true that electors have notoriously short memories, never mind that a great many voters weren’t even born when Rabuka held the reins of power.
I am coming to the view that not only can Rabuka win the next election but probably will.
For many Fijians, the events of 1987, let alone Rabuka’s period in government, aren’t a part of their lived experience. In any event, Bainimarama and Khaiyum have yet to learn the most basic lesson of politics — that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them.
And these two conjoined twins — with their chronic hubris and arrogance — are doing everything they possibly can to lose.
I’ve chosen the accompanying selection of photos to illustrate Rabuka’s extraordinary journey from coup-maker in 1987 to the benign figure that the opinion polls now tell us is set to make the most extraordinary comeback in Fijian political history. Provided of course, that Bainimarama and Khaiyum keep to the election timetable and the people still get their say.
There’s “Rambo” – the smiling tough guy and defender of iTaukei rights who forced thousands of Indo-Fijians to leave Fiji post 1987. And there’s Rabuka as Prime Minister in the 1990s forming a warm partnership with the main Indo-Fijian politician, Jai Ram Reddy, that produced the 1997 Constitution and eventually led to Rabuka’s defeat.
There’s the “treasonous” soldier who abolished the monarchy and took Fiji out of the Commonwealth when it wouldn’t accept his takeover. And there is the barefooted Prime Minister at Buckingham Palace making a formal apology to HM the Queen for his act of lese majeste and it being graciously accepted.
The man has had an incredible journey, that’s for sure. And maybe, just maybe, he is going to cement his place in Fijian history next year with an incredible final twist.
Is it in the stars? It doesn’t matter. It’s already in the opinion polls.
And you can bet your last saqamoli that it’s keeping Frank Bainimarama and his puppet master, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, awake at night with agonising intimations of their own political mortality.
Fiji-born Graham Davis is a Walkley Award and Logie Award-winning Australian-based journalist and media consultant. He is publisher of the Grubsheet blog on Fiji affairs. This commentary is republished with permission.