In Fiji’s Election, One Former Coup Leader Displaces Another
Allegations of voter fraud. Threats of military intervention. A police interrogation of political leaders.
Six days of turmoil over Fiji’s general election ended on Tuesday with the ousting of a 16-year strongman leader who had embraced China and eroded democratic norms in the country.
After fierce negotiations to form a three-party alliance, Sitiveni Rabuka, the head of the center-right People’s Alliance, is now poised to become Fiji’s prime minister, replacing the country’s longtime leader, Frank Bainimarama.
The return of Mr. Rabuka, who led the country from 1987 to 1999, would pave the way for a potential pivot by Fiji, a small but geopolitically important nation in the Pacific where the United States and China are fighting for influence.
While Mr. Bainimarama aligned Fiji more closely with Beijing, Mr. Rabuka is expected to favor a stronger relationship with Australia and New Zealand, the region’s historic powerhouses and close allies to the United States. His party also ruled out a proposed security deal with Beijing, like the one signed by the Solomon Islands and China earlier this year.
Mr. Rabuka, who initially contested the results after the vote last Wednesday, citing irregularities in the counting, described the outcome as the start of a new chapter for Fiji.
“The people have spoken,” he said. “People have chosen. A new way, a new path, a new government.”
Video footage posted on Twitter showed supporters on Tuesday at the People’s Alliance headquarters in the capital of Suva erupting in cheers, singing and applause.
Outside of the South Pacific, Fiji, an island nation of about a million people, is seen as a remote vacation idyll: frangipani flowers, golden beaches, cobalt seas. But within the region, it is a critical player with a major economy and a strong military. Among its neighbors, it tends to set the tone on human rights and democratic freedoms, which in recent years have appeared under threat.
It is also a country in which seemingly peaceful politics can degenerate quickly. The country experienced four coups between 1987 and 2006. Mr. Rabuka originally seized power in Fiji’s first coup, and Mr. Bainimarama in the last one.
The vote this month was Fiji’s third general election since democratic voting was reintroduced to the Constitution in 2013. Turnout this year, at just over 68 percent, was the lowest in the country’s history.
Speaking on Sunday, before the three-party coalition was formed, Mr. Rabuka described the results of the election as pivotal. “For those who follow, the generations to come,” he said, “they will look back at the election and say that was the turning point in Fiji’s journey.”
When the final results were announced, Mr. Bainimarama’s nationalist FijiFirst party had the single largest voter share, with 26 seats in Parliament out of a possible 55. Mr. Rabuka’s People’s Alliance took 21, and its ally the National Federation Party another five. And Sodelpa, a religious Indigenous-led party, won the final three seats.
Without no clear winner, it was a tight call to form a government, with the tiny party of Soldepa, taking the lead role.
Sodelpa’s public list of demands was considerable. In early talks, its leaders called for a deputy prime minister role for a party member, as well as a promise to support pro-Indigenous policies, a forgiveness of some student debt and the establishment of a Fijian embassy in Jerusalem.
The People’s Alliance was founded by Mr. Rabuka last year, after he walked away from Sodelpa, taking a significant portion of its support with him. That history made for a complicated dynamic: There was a natural partnership between the two parties, but antagonism between Mr. Rabuka and some of the Sodelpa members he had left behind continued to fester.
In the end, 16 members of Sodelpa’s management board voted in favor of a partnership with the People’s Alliance and 14 with FijiFirst.
“People have chosen a new way, a new path, and a new government,” said Biman Prasad, the leader of the National Federation Party. He added: “A new era will be starting as the new government takes on the power in this country.”
The election had been messy from the start.
After the first batch of votes was counted and then released hours behind schedule, the People’s Alliance party appeared to be in the lead — until the official election results app went dark for hours, in what officials described as a vote-counting anomaly. When the app began working again, the party’s lead had vanished, and Mr. Bainimarama’s party was out in front.
Fijians quickly cried foul. Five political parties, including Mr. Rabuka’s, said they would call for a recount, because they had no faith in the integrity of election officials. Impartial election observers said they had not seen “significant irregularities” or any evidence of misdoing.
As they prepared to contest the election results, opposition party leaders including Mr. Rabuka on Thursday asked the military to intervene in the election, as is its constitutional right.
Jone Kalouniwai, the top commander, said the military would instead allow the electoral process to play out. The Fijian military “will leave it in the good hands of those responsible of the electoral process under the 2013 constitution,” he added.
The next day, Mr. Rabuka was summoned by the police and interrogated for two hours about his activities over the week. He was ultimately released without being charged.
Since casting his vote on Wednesday, Mr. Bainimarama has not spoken publicly and has yet to concede the election.