Fiji’s tenuous grip on political stability

Author: William Waqavakatoga, University of Adelaide

After its December 2022 election, Fiji got a new prime minister for the first time in more than 15 years. A new government was formed with Sitiveni Rabuka, leader of the People’s Alliance party, replacing Frank Bainimarama of the FijiFirst party. One democratically elected former coup leader was swapped out for another.

Prime Minister of Fiji Sitiveni Ligamamada Rabuka addresses the 78th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York City, United States, 22 September, 2023 (Photo: Reuters/Mike Segar).

The key challenge for the Rabuka government has been to hold together an effective coalition. The coalition has held despite tensions and on 1 January 2024, the Rabuka government exceeded the longest term of any Fijian government that came into office through a peaceful transfer of power.

The government’s suspension of a number of senior officials and public remarks about constitutional changes prompted the Republic of Fiji Military Forces (RFMF) to raise concerns less than one month after the government was sworn in. RFMF Commander Major General Jone Kalouniwai cited the ‘guardian’ role of Fiji’s military — a vague and controversial section of the military-driven 2013 constitution that charges the RFMF with responsibility for the ‘well-being’ of Fiji and its people.

The dramatic parliamentary exit of Bainimarama and his former attorney-general Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, followed by several resignations by FijiFirst members of parliament in early 2023, set the political scene alight.

Notable changes by the Rabuka government included the repeal of the controversial Media Industry Development Act and the iTaukei Land Trust (Budget Amendment) Act (known as ‘Bill 17’), new appointments of permanent secretaries and to statutory boards, the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the reinstatement of the Great Council of Chiefs. The evolution of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the involvement of the revived Great Council of Chiefs in politics will be of particular interest in 2024 given FijiFirst’s opposition to these measures.

The highlight of 2023 was the acquittal of Bainimarama and suspended police commissioner Sitiveni Qiliho on charges that they interfered with the investigation of a corruption complaint filed by the University of the South Pacific in 2020. This may have triggered what Rabuka described as his intention to replace Attorney-General Siromi Turaga with Minister for Lands and Mineral Resources Filimoni Vosarogo.

The plan was thwarted after the Fiji Law Society informed Rabuka that Vosarogo was disqualified from holding the office of attorney-general because of an adverse disciplinary finding during his time as a practising lawyer. The RFMF also weighed in on the proposed appointment, possibly foreshadowing future military involvement in government decisions.

Sayed-Khaiyum was also charged with abuse of office but the case was delayed due to his medical travel abroad. Sayed-Khaiyum resigned as FijiFirst general secretary in December 2023.

The return to Fiji of University of the South Pacific Vice-Chancellor Pal Ahluwalia was another notable event of 2023. In 2021, Ahluwalia had been controversially detained and deported. Also notable was the return of the ashes of academic Brij Lal to Fiji. Bainimarama’s military government had arrested and deported Professor Lal, arguably Fiji’s foremost historian, in 2009 after he criticised the government.

Rabuka, also serving as Minister for Foreign Affairs, facilitated Kiribati’s return to the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF). His February 2023 meeting with the leader of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, Benny Wenda, contrasted with his predecessor’s stance. Rabuka and Prime Minister James Marape of Papua New Guinea have been appointed as special envoys by the Melanesian Spearhead Group to address the West Papua issue with the Indonesian government.

The Rabuka government has recalibrated Fiji’s relationship with China, with a marked shift towards longstanding Western partners. Rabuka stated the AUKUS security pact would ‘not affect the Rarotonga Treaty nor the Non-Proliferation [of Nuclear Weapons] Treaty’. Rabuka reiterated the phrase often used by Pacific leaders — ‘friends to all, enemy to none’ — advocating for the Pacific as a ‘zone of peace’.

The announcement of a planned new Fiji Embassy in Jerusalem appeased the government’s mostly conservative base. Fiji’s vote in October 2023 at the United Nations against a humanitarian truce in Gaza faced strong opposition from Rabuka’s coalition partner the National Federation Party. The RFMF also raised concerns for its potential impact on Fijian soldiers engaged in peacekeeping duties in the Middle East.

The vote underscored Rabuka’s pro-Israel stance. A permit for a ‘Free Palestine’ march in November was denied by Minister for Home Affairs and Immigration Pio Tikoduadua, drawing criticism from his own supporters and from advocacy groups. But successful pressure on Rabuka led Fiji to vote in favour of an immediate humanitarian ceasefire at the United Nations in December 2023.

Rabuka’s professed satisfaction with Japan’s plans to release over one million tons of treated nuclear wastewater into the Pacific Ocean over the coming decades also drew condemnation. Fiji’s parliament had unanimously supported the PIF leaders’ desire to safeguard the Pacific Ocean and preserve its resources.

The government faces future challenges and its performance will be closely scrutinised. If one of the minor parties falls out of favour with the coalition, a motion of no confidence in the prime minister could lead to Rabuka’s downfall.

Rabuka’s decision making appears ad hoc, often catching his own coalition off guard with his announcements. But Rabuka’s unpredictable nature may be linked with his desire to secure a lasting legacy as a politician and statesman.

William Waqavakatoga is a PhD Candidate in Politics and International Relations at the University of Adelaide. He is a former teaching assistant at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji.

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