A historic shift of power in the South Pacific
ohn christmas night the small Pacific island nation of Fiji saw an opposition leader sworn in as prime minister for only the third time in its history. Those two previous prime ministers were ousted in coups, in 1987 and 2000. As Sitiveni Rabuka – a 74-year-old political veteran and former coupster himself – took the oath of office, he promised the armed forces of the country nevertheless continue. with the result of the election and comply with the country’s constitution. But will they keep that promise?
Mr. Rabuka emerged as the winner of the election held on December 14 by the narrowest margin. The FijiFirst party of the outgoing prime minister, Frank Bainimarama (another ex-chupster), won the most seats, with 26 of the 55 contested. Mr. Rabuka’s People’s Alliance party only got 21. But Mr. Bainimarama, who ruled Fiji for 16 years, failed to get a majority. Mr. Rabuka was able to form a governing coalition with two smaller parties, the National Alliance Party and soda, who won a combined eight seats. Mr Bainimarama admitted defeat and flew to Australia, where his son is facing domestic assault charges. But by New Year’s Day the former prime minister was back and apparently had second thoughts.
Mr Bainimarama called on several senior officials, including the powerful police commissioner, to reject the new government’s request that they not resign. After nominating his chief henchman and former finance minister, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, to represent the opposition on the important Constitutional Offices Commission, Mr Bainimarama canceled that nomination on 4 January . Mr Sayed-Khaiyum, who was considered de facto prime minister under the FijiFirst rule and had left the country on Christmas Day, has since been placed on police border alert.
Even if Mr Bainimarama continues to restrain himself, we may face political trouble. The constitution which the army is sworn to uphold was imposed on 900,000 people in Fiji by Mr Bainimarama after he seized power and withdrew the previous version. Much of the incoming government’s platform, including reforms to the country’s anti-corruption commission and the revamping of the Great Council of Leaders, may need to be changed. . But constitutional change would require the support of 75% of voters in a referendum, an almost impossible level. And the armed forces are very much tied to the current constitution because it gives them responsibility for the “prosperity” of the Fijian people.
Politics aside, Mr Rabuka owns an economy affected by covid-19. It moved by more than a fifth in 2020 and 2021, before rebounding slightly last year as tourists began to return. Due to the pandemic the FijiFirst government was forced to suspend the national carrier, Fiji Airways. And the war in Ukraine has since made public finances even worse, by increasing the price of energy and many basic foodstuffs, which Fiji imports. The national debt is now 85% of GDP; about a third of the annual revenue is dedicated to its service.
Geopolitics represents another challenge for Mr. Rabuka. In recent years Fiji has seen significant investment from China. The country’s gold mine is owned by a Chinese company; other mines on its second largest island. Discounted Chinese loans have paid for new roads and bridges. Fearing being squeezed out, Australia and New Zealand have rushed to provide strong budget support, covid relief, rural electrification and a new peacekeeping base for the armed forces.
But another coup is the most important threat. Due to an uncertain outcome after the election, the police commissioner called in the armed forces, citing the risk of ethnic unrest. Their commander, Major-General Jone Kalouniwai, was on duty, but with only token use. But many believe that Mr. Bainimarama intends to force him to intervene more strongly – on the issue that Mr. Rabuka is already breaking the constitution. The former prime minister must be managed carefully if Fiji is to see its first ever democratic transition of power.■