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  • Writer's pictureB.M. Allsopp

Fiji's election: two coup leaders neck and neck

Fijian votes at polling place
Fijians vote 2022 Source: ABC news

I avoid writing about Fiji politics for two reasons: first, I know little about this complex subject and second, I assume you are more interested in Fiji's people and way of life, just like me. But perhaps I'm wrong on the second point, as some readers have already asked me about the December 2022 election. The election attracted worldwide media attention because the two front-running party leaders had both led successful military coups against democratically elected governments. Enticing media fodder indeed!

(I've consulted usually reliable sources but am responsible for all errors spotted by better informed readers.)

So here goes with a simplified timeline...

1987 - Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka (Rambo) leads two military coups, becomes prime minister 1992-99.

2000 - Commander of the Armed Forces, Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama, intervenes to quash a civilian coup against Chaudhury government. Qarase appointed PM.

2006 - Bainimarama ousts Qarase elected government to rule with military backing.

2009 - To restore rule of law, president abolishes constitution, appoints Bainimarama as prime minister.

2014 - Under the new constitution, Bainimarama's Fiji First wins elections in 2014, 2018.

2022 - Rabuka forms People's Alliance to challenge Bainimarama in December election..

2022 - Fiji First wins 26 seats, 3 opposition parties win 28 combined. At parliament's first meeting on Christmas Eve, Rabuka is elected prime minister by just one vote (Rabuka 28, Bainimarama 27).

Is there anything to choose between these two coup leaders? Both are undeniably intelligent, able and determined, but can they be trusted?

Origins of Fiji's ethnic rivalry

I've told you before about Fiji's hereditary aristocracy of chiefs who in 1874, ceded their islands to Queen Victoria. If you missed those posts, you can read more here and here. From 1879 to 1916, the British brought indentured labourers from India to work on sugar plantations and many stayed in Fiji after their contracts ended, establishing themselves in agriculture and commerce (more here). However, despite the success of many, they and their descendants were not able to buy land, which was reserved for indigenous Fijians by the colonial government. Fijians were landowners, Indians were their tenants.

Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka (Rambo) - 1987

Sitiveni Rabuka, Fiji prime minister
Sitiveni Rabuka (US Embassy, Suva)

When Fiji became independent in 1970, Indians were the majority ethnic group in the country. The new nation and Commonwealth member appointed Queen Elizabeth as head of state, her executive duties carried out by her Governor-General. However, economic and political competition between the indigenous Fijians and the ethnic Indians increased steadily. Fears grew that Indians in government would take over Fijian land, especially after the 1987 elections ousted the highly able and revered prime minister, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, a paramount chief.

To prevent this happening, Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka led a bloodless military coup in the new parliament where a number of ministers were Indian. A few months later, when the Governor-General brokered an interim government to return Fiji to constitutional rule, Rabuka staged a second coup, took over government, revoked the 1970 constitution and declared Fiji a republic.

After a year of agitation, an uneasy stability returned, However, 66,000 people left Fiji over the next five years, nearly all of them ethnic Indians whose skills were welcome in Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Indians no longer outnumbered Fijians, but the economic fallout of this loss was severe.

International reaction to Rabuka's coups was hostile. The Commonwealth suspended Fiji's membership. Some countries, including Australia, responded with trade sanctions and suspension of aid. However, ten years later under a more democratic constitution, Fiji was readmitted to the Commonwealth. Civilian Prime Minister Rabuka visited the Queen in London, where she accepted his customary gift of a whale's tooth in apology for breaking his vow of allegiance to her as an officer of the Fiji army.

Although Rabuka had proved a skilled leader, his government was defeated in the 1999 elections under the new constitution and Fiji's first ethnic Indian prime minister, Mahendra Chaudhury was installed. However, despite being a commoner, Rabuka was appointed Chairman of the Great Council of Chiefs, where he continued to be influential in both Fiji and the wider South Pacific.

Commander Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama - 2006

Commodore Bainimarama was commander of the Armed Forces, when a group of pro-Fijian civilians stormed

Frank Bainimarama, FIJI prime minister
Frank Bainimarama (UK FCO )

parliament, taking the members hostage in May 2000. Believing that President Kamisese Mara was not dealing effectively with the situation, Bainimarama forced Mara to resign and formed an interim military government, which negotiated an accord with the rebels. Interim Prime Minister Qarase led a more conservative government favouring Fijians from the next election but the same tensions simmered.

Bainimarama's attitude seemed to be that the new government operated on his behalf as he was vocal in his public comments. In late November 2006, he seized control by military force, arresting Prime Minister Qarase. Violent incidents against media and coup opponents were reported, but no weapons were fired. Bainimarama stated that his main reasons for overthrowing the Qarase government were that it was corrupt, and that it was conducting racially discriminatory policies against the country's ethnic Indian minority.

The military enforced Bainimarama's authority until 2009, when the president officially abolished the constitution, assumed all governing power and revoked all judicial appointments. The next day, the president reappointed Prime Minister Bainimarama, who chose a multiracial cabinet. Citizens were invited to submit ideas for a new constitution, which was adopted in 2013 and elections held in 2014. Bainimarama resigned from the Armed Forces and formed Fiji First, a party to contest the elections, which he won in 2014 and 2018. On Christmas Eve 2022, after a very close election, the 1987 coup leader, Rabuka, was voted prime minister by 28 votes to Bainimarama's 27.

During his 16 years as prime minister under two constitutions and none, Bainimarama showed a commitment to removing racial identity from public policy. He restricted labour rights including the right to strike, but brought in popular measures such as free public education and free transport for students. The economy grew steadily as investment returned. Until Covid-19 struck, that is. Would Bainimarama have been re-elected without the economic devastation the virus brought?

You can find more about Fiji on my website's Fiji Gallery page and also in my novels, Fiji Islands Mysteries.. As ever, I'd welcome your comments and questions about this post.

Happy reading!


(B.M. Allsopp)


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