A New Era in Fijian Politics

Fiji is now navigating a new chapter in its complex, and often rancorous, political history. Before the December 14, 2022, election, there were deep concerns about the strength of Fiji’s democracy. After votes were cast, Fijians endured tense days that saw attempts to open old wounds as well as rising fears that a peaceful transition of power would be marred by vote-counting fraud or military intervention. When no party won a clear majority in the 55-seat parliament, a coalition of three parties—the People’s Alliance Party (PA), the National Federation Party (NFP), and the Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA)—formed a People’s Coalition government, with 29 seats. On December 24, as constitutionally required, members of parliament (MPs) held a secret ballot to select Fiji’s new prime minister. Sitiveni Rabuka received 28 votes and won by a margin of one vote. Rabuka is a figure who has helped shape Fiji’s political landscape since 1987 when he led two coups. He then served as prime minister from 1992 to 1999, subsequently leaving politics for many years before returning to challenge Josaia Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama, the politician who has wielded the reins of power through extraordinary means for the past 16 years.

The formation of the People’s Coalition government in the last days of 2022 meant that Bainimarama was out of power for the first time since 2006. In December 2006, when Bainimarama was the commander of the Royal Fijian Military Force (RFMF), he seized power in a coup and ruled the nation as an autocracy until reverting to a democratic system in 2014. Before this return to democratic norms, Bainimarama and his deputy prime minister, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, rewrote Fiji’s constitution in 2013 (Rabuka also oversaw two constitutional rewrites in 1990 and 1997). Bainimarama’s Fiji First party comfortably won the 2014 election and won again in 2018, but by a smaller margin despite Fiji First’s “lavish and well-resourced campaign of handouts.” The reason for this change in Fiji First’s political fortunes was the increasing concentration of power in its two leaders’ hands who “openly display a demeanor that has incensed a considerable number of Fijian voters,” according to analysis at the time. Bainimarama’s government significantly curtailed democratic freedoms throughout its tenure, with Freedom House giving Fiji a “partly free” ranking in 2022. The crippling economic and social pressures from the pandemic led to more “Bainimarama fatigue,” yet Bainimarama’s Fiji First still won 26 seats in the 2022 election and got the support of an unidentified member of the coalition during the December 24 leadership vote. Bainimarama, therefore, remains a powerful political opponent of Rabuka’s government and still occupies the prime minister's residence over a month after losing office.

Bainimarama’s former deputy prime minister, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, who also served as attorney general among many other portfolios, also remains powerful. Shortly after Rabuka was sworn in as prime minister, Sayed-Khaiyum became the subject of a police investigation for his public comments during the vote-counting period that “ incited racial hatred, violence and communal antagonism” (the nation’s old wounds, as previously mentioned), as a means for Fiji First to retain power. This investigation is ongoing. Sayed-Khaiyum is a divisive figure who wielded enormous power with Bainimarama, yet he received an increased vote. He is already proving to be a thorn in the new government’s side, though he announced his retreat from political life on February 3, having run afoul of parliamentary conduct codes he authored.

Rabuka’s government has wasted no time in reversing numerous vestiges of Bainimarama’s long tenure. This includes the release of withheld funding for the University of the South Pacific, which is critical to not only Fiji but the wider Pacific, as well as permitting the return of the institution’s exiled vice chancellor. Monetary payments were also announced for 200,000 low-income Fijian families to assist with schooling costs, as well as an infusion of funds for Fiji’s beleaguered school system. MPs were given another pay cut, bringing their earnings down 30 percent from pre-pandemic levels. Rabuka’s government has also signaled its intent to roll back media restrictions that were one of the most egregious features of the Bainimarama era. Alongside these popular measures, Rabuka’s government has exercised its prerogative to overturn appointments made by the previous government to diplomatic missions, government agencies, and institutions. The pace and scale with which the new government’s axe fell on many Bainimarama loyalists in the first two weeks of 2023 prompted the commander of RFMF, Major General Jone Kalouniwai, to issue a troubling statement on January 17. In it, Kalouniwai reminded the new government of the RFMF’s obligation under section 131(2) of the constitution to "ensure at all times the security, defence and well-being of Fiji and all Fijians.” Though Kalouniwai was rebuked and has since publicly demonstrated loyalty to the new government, he has nonetheless introduced the specter of past coups into this very new political era, a path that would be disastrous for Fiji.

Shortly after this, the new attorney general warned Fiji’s president, Ratu Wiliame Maivalili Katonivere, against taking “ legal advice” from Bainimarama and Sayed-Khaiyum. More major reckonings came in the form of the suspension, pending the outcome of misconduct inquiries, of the commissioners of police and corrections. A controversial High Court judge and a Fiji First MP tendered their resignations and then the chief justice was suspended just a month after the People’s Coalition took over. On February 1, the seemingly amicable arrangements between Bainimarama and his successor took a sharp turn when it was announced that Bainimarama had joined numerous other leading figures from his government by also being placed under investigation. Despite the new government having the upper hand at the opening of the new parliament on February 3, a no confidence motion under section 94(1) of the 2013 constitution remains a threat. This turn of events would be detrimental to Fiji in countless ways, not least in arresting the much-needed reforms in progress.

Despite a substantial domestic agenda and an abundance of political intrigue, Rabuka has already made a significant mark on foreign policy. Rabuka is also now Fiji’s foreign minister and chair of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF). On January 20, Rabuka headed a delegation to Kiribati to meet with that nation’s regionally isolated president, Taneti Maamau. Rabuka’s mission was to ask for forgiveness for wrongs against Kiribati that kept them out of the PIF when other Micronesian countries returned in 2022 and also out of Washington’s U.S.-Pacific Islands Summit in September 2022. Rabuka, notably transported on an Australian Air Force plane, participated in an apology ritual that encapsulated the high ceremony and ideals of the “ Pacific Way.” Rabuka consolidated his place as a regional statesman through this visit, a status reinforced by confirmation in late January that Kiribati was returning to PIF. Maamau will return to the regional fold by traveling to Suva in late February to participate in the PIF leaders’ meeting. This comes as welcome news to those concerned about Kiribati’s increasing closeness to China.

China is also very much on the minds of all those watching Fiji’s new government. China’s influence in Fiji and elsewhere in the Pacific surged during the Bainimarama era. Indeed, the international sanctions imposed on Fiji after the 2006 coup presented opportunities for China that were not missed. Rabuka has stressed his openness to work with all partners, including China and at first seemed to “chide” traditional partners (Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and the United Kingdom) for continuing to operate with outdated colonial mindsets. Yet on January 28, Rabuka terminated an MOU with China on joint police training. In good news for Fiji’s traditional partners, Rabuka reasoned that Fiji and China’s “democracy and justice systems are different so we will go back to those that have similar systems with us.” He was speaking of joint security ventures, though no doubt traditional partners hope this stance will extend further. It is also very notable that Deputy Prime Minister Viliame Gavoka met with a Taiwanese representative on January 14, 2023, and publicized it on his Facebook page.

All traditional partners are treading very carefully as Fiji’s domestic political machinations unfold and are at pains to stay distanced from it. That said, political stability is in their interests, as well as the stability of Fiji. All traditional partners will be looking forward to building on existing and longstanding relationships with the new government. For Australia, this relationship is outlined in the 2019 Vuvale Partnership. Diplomatic sources in Suva have recently reaffirmed the strength of bilateral bonds and Australia’s intent to continue to be a constructive and helpful partner, willing to do whatever it takes to assist Fiji and to help Fiji, as current forum chair, bring the region together through Fiji. Australia’s prime minister, Anthony Albanese, has already extended an invitation to Prime Minister Rabuka to visit as an official guest of government.

For the United States, which has uneven relationships across the Pacific (a situation it has been rapidly remedying since 2022), its connection to Fiji and its presence in Suva is of increasing importance. In a conversation with the author, former U.S. ambassador to Fiji (as well as Tonga, Nauru, Kiribati, and Tuvalu) Judith Cefkin welcomed the peaceful transition of power in Fiji though noted that “given the government's slim majority in parliament and the tricky coalition politics, PM Rabuka will have to navigate, there will be challenges ahead.” Another former U.S. ambassador to Fiji, Steven McGann, told the author that he did not foresee any great shift in bilateral relations with the government change and noted that Rabuka has deep connections with the United States, largely through his religious affiliations. However, McGann cautioned that the U.S. government must deliver in the Pacific region after promises made in 2022 because “when the U.S. does not fulfill its commitments in the Pacific it creates a vacuum that China is waiting to fill.” The new U.S. ambassador in Suva, Marie Damour, echoed these sentiments in a recent interview with the author. Damour’s recent travels through the Pacific have driven home the immense challenges facing the region and how the United States should engage to meet them. Environmental and development challenges, food, and water security are just some of the critical issues the United States must help address. She also stressed how imperative it is that the United States stay focused on the Pacific and encouraged more members of Congress and officials to travel to the region to see the realities obscured behind pervasive notions of the Pacific Islands as quintessential tourist paradises. On Fiji’s political circumstances, Damour emphasized that peace, stability, and rule of law are paramount, and that “our task is to ensure that basic needs are met.”

Patricia O’Brien is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Asia Program and Pacific Partners Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Patricia O’Brien

Patricia O’Brien

Former Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Asia Program and Pacific Partners Initiative