Last shall be first … Fiji’s kingmaker party considering all options

Sodelpa leader Viliame Gavoka
Sodelpa leader Viliame Gavoka . . . "We are not in any hurry" to decide about the coalition partners. Image: Elena Vacukulata/ The Fiji Times

By Koroi Hawkins, RNZ Pacific journalist

The Social Democratic Liberal Party (Sodelpa) has emerged as the kingmaker in Fiji’s contentious 2022 general election and its leader Viliame Gavoka is in no rush to punch his golden ticket.

After a nightmare leadup to the election, with infighting resulting in a massive split in the party, many punters had all but written Sodelpa off ahead of last week’s polls.

The major opposition political party in the last Parliament, Sodelpa is now a shadow of its former self, just scraping through the electoral system’s 5 percent threshold by the skin of its teeth.

Its three Parliamentary seats are the lowest number of any party in the new Parliament and its leadership will be all too aware that the kingmaker position it now finds itself in — courted by parties on all sides — is probably the most leverage it will have for the coming four-year-term.

Speaking to media in the capital Suva yesterday, Gavoka said the party had 14 days to consider its options.

“We are not in any hurry, we understand the importance of this but we’re not gonna rush. We are going to do this properly but with urgency,” he said.

Gavoka said they were speaking to all parties but he was keeping his distance from the process.

“I am not part of the negotiating team. We set the parameters for negotiations, and we have redefined what is non-negotiable and what is negotiable and that is handed over to the negotiating team to talk to both parties,” he said.

“All those policies were collectively framed by the management board.”

So, what are Sodelpa’s non-negotiables?
Given that Sodelpa’s campaign slogan was “Time for change”, Gavoka is going to have to come up with something better than “we will make the best decision for Fiji” to convince his hardcore followers to swallow the pill of a partnership with FijiFirst.

Gavoka has provided assurance to Sodelpa’s supporters that whatever coalition it agrees to, its iTaukei policies will prevail:

  • Reestablishment of the Great Council of Chiefs;
  • Education policy — free tertiary and forgiveness of the student loan (TELS); and
  • Set up an embassy in Jerusalem. “Fiji being a very Christian country, we want our presence in the Holy Land.”

When Gavoka was pressed by media on his close family ties to FijiFirst’s general secretary – his son-in-law, Aiyaz-Sayed Khaiyum, his response appeared non-committal.

“You know, we’ve been political rivals in Parliament for eight years and that’s pretty clear. In the form of Parliament, there’s no family but outside Parliament you’re family.”

On the other hand, there is lingering distrust between Sodelpa and its former leader Sitiveni Rabuka, whose new People’s Alliance Party has emerged the runner-up in its election debut with 21 parliamentary seats, just behind FijiFirst’s 26.

Rabuka believes a partnership with Sodelpa is the best fit.

‘Natural for us’
“I think it’s natural for us to forge a coalition because when we look at our manifestos and policies, and vision statements, etc. they are in harmony and all of them individually and collectively are diametrically opposed to the FijiFirst policy reforms,” Rabuka said.

No agreement has yet been signed by either but talks are underway.

“We’ve taken it as far as they gave us the opportunity for yesterday, we provided our team to talk with the team, and the result of that has not come back to us,” said Rabuka.

Rabuka has confirmed that he has not spoken directly to the Sodelpa leader.

“I’m in the process of doing so.”

Gavoka, however has said he would rather not.

“You don’t want to insert yourself into the negotiations. Our people are negotiating with their people. The two leaders are best to stay apart. That’s the way I’d like to do it,” said Gavoka.

The other potential coalition partner should Sodelpa go with Rabuka over Bainimarama is the National Federation Party, led by Professor Biman Prasad.

‘A reasonable man’
Sodelpa and NFP have spent the past two parliamentary terms in the opposition.

“I’ve had a talk with the Sodelpa team, and also met the leader Bill.

“Bill and I have worked together before and he has always been a reasonable man,” Professor Prasad said.

“I think he understands the enormity of why people have voted us from the opposition and voted for a new government. And I’m sure he understands it, we understand it, and Mr Rabuka understands it and I think it looks very positive.”

The Sodelpa management board will be meeting today to consider both coalition proposals.

Meanwhile, despite RNZ Pacific attempts to get comments from FijiFirst it has not received a response.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ. 

Final results of the Fiji general election
Final results of the Fiji general election showing just the four parties that met the 5 percent threshold. Image: Fijivillage
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