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Fiji’s Political Drama: Tragedy or Comedy

06 Jun 2024
By Richard Herr OAM
Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka speaks to Parliament, 2022. Source: Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka Facebook /

Fiji’s political landscape is in chaos, with a fragile coalition on the brink of collapse and the opposition falling apart amid scandals and power struggles. The potential outcomes include the government falling, the prime minister being ousted, or new elections being called, each scenario threatening further instability.

The political drama unfolding in Fiji since late January is worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster. The screenplay has almost written itself. The plot revolves around a fragile coalition government unravelling, and an opposition imploding. It includes sex, drugs, greed, and political intrigue, starring a cast of characters with incredible back stories.

The climax to this script has still to be written but events suggest it will be a tragedy rather than a comedy despite substantial buffoonery. How the final act plays out may depend on which of three intervening scenarios will provide the key twist for the dénouement. These include the likelihood of the government falling; of the prime minister being ousted; and/or of a new general election.

Scenario one revolves around the survival of the Fiji’s current coalition government. Sitiveni Rabuka came to power when his People’s Alliance Party (PAP) managed to broker an agreement uniting its 21 seats with the National Federation Party’s (NFP) five seats and the Social Democratic Liberal Party’s (SODELPA) three seats to create a 29–26 majority in parliament following the 14 December 2022 general election.

From the outset, the weakest link in the coalition appeared to be SODELPA, which only narrowly voted to join the coalition, while PAP and NFP had campaigned together for the election.

This year that link was seriously tested when the seeds of the current political drama were sown. A late January affair between a PAP minister and a SODELPA minister forced Rabuka to take disciplinary against both. Aserio Radrodro, the SODELPA minister in question, was removed from his post, only to be returned to Cabinet three months later by Rabuka when his party threatened to disrupt the coalition.

The current rupture between PAP and NFP appears more serious given that it is policy rather than personality based. The PAP minister, Lynda Tabuya, who was at the centre of a controversial sex and drugs scandal chaired the Parliament’s special Emoluments Committee that recommended that MPs and other state officers should receive a substantial pay raise.

The committee’s recommendation was approved by the Parliament almost unanimously, but critically, not quite. Forty of the 55 MPs voted for the increase. All the PAP and SODELPA voted in favour of the raise.

Deputy prime minister and leader of the NFP, Biman Prasad, condemned the increase along with the other NFP representatives. Breaking ranks on such a controversial issue outraged Rabuka who has threatened unspecified retaliatory discipline against the NFP. This could force the NFP out of the coalition.

Such a break would not necessarily spell the end of the Rabuka Government. If the NFP broke from its coalition agreement, Rabuka could continue to govern in minority provided the NFP only moved to the cross benches rather than shifting its support to the Opposition FijiFirst party.

A long-term antipathy between FijiFirst and the NFP mitigates the chances of a coalition partnership between them to form a new government, but this option might not have been entirely off the table. The NFP and its Indo-Fijian base have suffered some humiliating losses as Rabuka has exhibited a return to some of the ethno-nationalism of his 1987 coup agenda.

Scenario two focuses on the prime ministership and whether Rabuka might step aside or be forced out. Under the Constitution, Rabuka can be replaced without bringing down the coalition government or forcing a new election. There have been rumblings within the PAP over Rabuka’s leadership with Manoa Kamikamica, PAP’s Deputy Leader, being touted as a possible successor.

The involuntary option of a no confidence motion against Rabuka, while possible, is complicated. Section 94 of the Constitution requires the name of the proposed alternative PM as part of the motion. The current political disarray in Parliament makes it unlikely that a contested no confidence motion would result in a changed premiership and a new government.

Although implausible, a no confidence motion in Rabuka may not be the lemming-like collective suicide it would appear to be in the current period of serious political turmoil. A confected motion which he lost could provide Rabuka with a six-month respite and a chance to regroup. Section 94 of the Constitution also outlines that no further motion of confidence can be introduced for at least 6 months after a failed motion.

Scenario three’s postulate of fresh elections may turn out to be the most likely plot twist in the longer term, but it is currently impractical. Either of the two preceding scenarios could occur at any time, but there is no chance of dissolving the Parliament and calling for fresh elections for two months at least. Section 62 of the Constitution prevents an early dissolution until 18 months have elapsed since the beginning of Parliament’s term. This time will be up on 3 August 2024.

This constraint is what makes a minority government a bit more likely than might be expected. If either NFP or SODELPA were to desert the coalition without there being an alternative PM to hold together the existing or a new coalition, Rabuka would be obliged to limp toward August as a lame duck leading a minority government.

Orchestrating a failed vote of no confidence might not just be an act of desperation to give Rabuka a six-month breather. It would likely be a signal that an early dissolution is on the cards. A failed no confidence vote is a Section 62 requirement before other steps can be taken to dissolve the Parliament for an early election.

There has been speculation throughout 2024 that crossing that 18 month threshold would trigger new elections. Perhaps some of the political tensions of this year might be explained by personal and partisan positioning based on such speculation. Regardless, mounting political tensions will make the option of new elections more front of mind in the weeks leading into August.

Late breaking news has inserted a deus ex machina scenario twist before the finale to Fiji’s political drama can be written.

The opposition party FijiFirst is in the process of imploding. The party’s machine wing has sought to exert a draconian discipline over party MPs who voted against an extra-party directive by using Section 63 of the Constitution to expel them from Parliament.

The ploy was orchestrated by former Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama and his loyal former Attorney General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, to reassert control over the party they co-founded in 2014. The gambit appears to have been ill-founded and headed toward failure. However, the split within FijiFirst makes it a weakened force in all the scenarios to play out up to, and including, fighting an early election should one be called.

There is no clear denouement to the ongoing political drama in Fiji and this makes the current spectacle a tragedy for a country that has struggled to return to being a fully functioning democracy. None of the options in the three scenarios canvassed suggests a path that will not inflict further long-term scars on the troubled story of independent Fiji.

Richard Herr OAM is a life member of the AIIA and inter alia a former President of the Tasmanian Branch.  He has served as a consultant on various aspects of Pacific Island a regional architecture for four decades.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.