Showdown between two former coup leaders in fight for Fiji’s democracy

Fiji political rivals Sitiveni Rabuka (left), a former prime minister, and Voreqe Bainimarama, the current Prime Minister
Fiji political rivals Sitiveni Rabuka (left), a former prime minister, and Voreqe Bainimarama, the current Prime Minister . . . both former military coup leaders. Image: Vanguard/IDN

By Ravindra Singh Prasad in Suva

It is an ironic fact in Fiji, a multiethnic Pacific nation of under one million people, that coups don’t work and ultimately lead to constitutional reforms and democratic elections.

As Fiji goes to the polls this Wednesday, the choice is between choosing one former coup leader or another to govern Fiji for the next five years.

Both fought the same battle in 2018, and the incumbent Prime Minister Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama won in an election considered largely free and fair.

The two combatants are Prime Minister Bainimarama and his challenger Sitiveni Rabuka, a former prime minister.

Bainimarama staged a coup in 2006 when he was the commander of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces (RFMF), and after changing the constitution, he was elected as prime minister twice in 2014 and 2018 in national elections.

Rabuka, at the time a lieutenant colonel in the Fiji Military, staged two coups in 1987, claiming to reassert ethnic Fijian supremacy.

Following the adoption of a constitution in 1990 that guaranteed indigenous Fijian domination of the political system, he formed the Soqosoqo ni Vakavulewa ni Taukei (SVT) political party of indigenous Fijians and won two elections in 1992 and 1994 to become prime minister.

Rabuka lost power
Rabuka lost power at the 1999 election, and he was succeeded ironically by the Fijian Labour Party leader Mahendra Chaudhry who fought the elections on a nonethnic platform and became Fiji’s first Indo-Fijian Prime Minister.

A few months later, in May 2000, he was ousted by businessman George Speight with the help of rogue troops.

Significantly, Speight was not a soldier and was backed by only one faction of the army. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and remains in jail. Both Bainimarama and Rabuka were clever and powerful enough after their coups to ensure that Fiji’s constitution was rewritten to absolve them of any legal wrongdoing.

Fiji is a unique country where a Hindu Indian population known here as “Indo-Fijians” have established themselves as part and parcel of the country.

Their ancestors were brought to the islands as indentured labour by the British to work in the new sugar cane plantations. But now they have established themselves in the business sector and in politics, so much so that the economic czars of both political camps are Indo-Fijians.

The four coups of the 1980s and 1990s led to a massive out-migration of Indo-Fijians and their ratio of the population has now dropped from 50 per cent in 1987 to about 35 per cent. Ethnic tensions have in recent years diluted with the Bainimarama government’s “One Fiji” policy and the recognition of the role Indo-Fijians have played in building modern Fiji.

Though race politics is still in the background, Bainimarama and Rabuka are fighting the forthcoming elections on mainly an economic platform, with the incumbent government arguing that they have protected Fiji better than many other countries of its size from global economic currents of recent years.

Economic ‘volcano’
However, Rabuka’s opposition alliance is arguing that Fiji is in the grip of an economic volcano about to erupt.

The December 14 general election is being contested by 342 candidates from nine political parties. Bainimarama’s ruling FijiFirst Party (FFP) and Rabuka’s Peoples’ Alliance Party (PAP) will each contest 55 seats, while the National Federation Party (NFP) led by former University of the South Pacific’s economics professor Biman Prasad will field 54 candidates.

Rabuka and Prasad have formed a strong political alliance and have been campaigning together for months leading up to this election. If the PAP-NFP alliance wins, Prasad is expected to be Rabuka’s Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister.

Meanwhile, Bainimarama’s Deputy Prime Minister, Attorney-General and Minister for the Economy, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum — an Indo-Fijian Muslim — has been accused of running the government for Bainimarama and expanding the influence of Indo-Fijian Muslims with money from Arabs at the expense of the Hindu Indo-Fijians.

Rabuka and Prasad have been campaigning across the country, asking the people to vote out the FijiFirst government to rid Fiji of the “damaging legacy of Voreqe Bainimarama and Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum”.

They are offering a “consultative government” and a democracy — as opposed to Sayed-Khaiyum’s “dictatorship”.

The message seems to have hit a chord, even though the Fiji economy has not been doing badly compared to many other countries, and Rabuka is strongly tipped to win a close election.

‘Unstoppable’, claims leader
“We are unstoppable all over the land,” Rabuka said at a recent election rally in Lautoka, an Indo-Fijian stronghold.

“We are ready to make history on December 14,” he added, “tell the people about our plans and keep emphasising that they are the centre of our mission.”

In an interview with Fiji Live, Professor Prasad revealed that if his party forms the next government with the PAP, Sitiveni Rabuka would be the Prime Minister, despite any party having more seats than the other after the election.

He confirmed that the two parties have decided that between the two of them, they will form the government, and that is the bottom line. Prasad is optimistic that they will win substantially more seats in this election and will be in a very strong position when they form the government with their partners, the PAP.

Something that is worrying Fijians is whether an unfavourable result for the government would trigger another coup. Bainimarama’s 2013 constitution has given the Fijian military constitutional rights to be its custodian:

“It shall be the overall role of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces to ensure at all times the security, defence and wellbeing of Fiji and all Fijians.”

It goes on to say the armed forces will perform its “Constitutional Role locally and also ready to tackle the modern-day security challenges brought about by Climate Change, Radicalism and Transnational Crime”.

Honouring democracy
In an address on December 5, the RFMF commander, Major-General Jone Kalouniwai, ordered his soldiers to honour the democratic process by respecting the outcome of the votes in the 2022 general election. This comment has been widely welcomed across the political spectrum.

Fiji Labour Party Leader Mahendra Chaudhry says the statement by Major-General Kalouniwai is reassuring for the party.

He told Fiji Broadcasting Corporation that FLP was twice robbed of its mandate to govern by coups executed or supported by the military.

People’s Alliance deputy party leader Manoa Kamikamica said: “Major-General Ro Jone Kalouniwai has voiced what the bulk of Fiji want to hear — which is, we wait for the ballot box to decide.”

Professor Prasad said: “That’s an absolutely fantastic statement from the commander, and I want to thank him because everybody who believes in democracy, who believes in good governance, who believes in a free and fair election, will respect the outcome of the election.”

In a commentary published by the Fiji Times, Professor Wadan Narsey, a senior economist and political analyst in Fiji, expressed some views that reflective many of the voters, which may ultimately tip the scales of who governs after next week.

He argues that under the 2013 Constitution, the government has been able to stifle freedom of expression by the public and the media, with a large section of the taxpayer-funded public media being brought under the control of the government, effectively acting as government propaganda and to attack opposition parties and MPs.

Proper dialogue promised
“There were no such restrictions or control in the Rabuka government era, and these are unlikely to happen in the Rabuka/Prasad era,” argues Professor Narsey.

He points out that “in his recent public statements, Rabuka has promised to govern through discussion, dialogue, proper debate and compromise when necessary”.

He points out that the views of the people are not respected, even though Fiji is functioning under a “democracy”.

The government has arrested those who express views that the government does not like.

Pointing out to the MOU between PAP and NFF, Professor Narsey believes “they would not rule by fear or imposition of two men’s views on the whole country.

“They would focus on providing good health services, education, water and infrastructure like roads and electricity, which have all been failures under the current government, despite massive expenditures using borrowed money”.

“Whether it is a yearning for improvements to infrastructure, construction and allocation of school quarters, assistance to construct a bridge, issues on education, or discussions over manifestos, it is encouraging to note that many Fijians are actually making an effort to be part of the voting process,” The Fiji Times noted in an editorial last week.

“Now, as we look ahead to next Wednesday, there is a sense of ownership in the air. There appears to be a willingness to cast a ballot. There is a willingness to be part of the process,” The Fiji Times added.

Ravindra Singh Prasad is a correspondent of InDepth News (IDN), the flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. This article is republished with permission.

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