Fiji’s upcoming elections are expected to be hotly contested, amid concerns over a smooth transition of power, writes Shailendra Singh.
In Fiji’s politically charged environment, national elections are historically a risky time. Since the 2022 campaign period was declared open on April 26, the intensity has steadily increased. Moreover, with three governments overthrown in coups following elections in 1987, 1999 and 2006, concerns about a smooth transfer of power are part of the national conversation.
The frontrunners in the election, due to be held by January 2023 but likely to be held later this year, are two former military strongmen – Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama and former Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka.
Both men have been involved in Fijian coups in the past. Rabuka seized power in the 1987 coups in the name of indigenous self-determination. He became prime minister-elect in 1992 but lost power in 1999 after forming a coalition with a majority Indo-Fijian party.
Bainimarama staged his 2006 coup in the name of good governance, multiracialism and rooting out corruption, before restoring electoral democracy and winning elections under the banner of the Fiji First (FF) party in 2014 and 2018.
FF was formed by the leaders and supporters of the 2006 coup during the transition to democratic government via the 2014 elections. Many FF leaders were part of the post-coup interim government that created the 2013 constitution, which made substantial changes to Fiji’s electoral system.
These changes included the elimination of seats reserved for specific ethnicities, replaced by a single multi-member constituency covering the entire country, and the creation of a single national electoral list. The distribution of seats is proportional, which means that each of the eight parties in the running will have to obtain 5% of the vote to win one of the 55 seats up for grabs this year.
Since votes for a particular candidate are distributed to those at the bottom of their party’s list once they cross the 5% threshold, the popularity of individual candidates can make or break a party’s electoral hopes. left. For example, Bainimarama individually garnered 69% of FF’s total votes in 2014 and 73.81% in 2018, demonstrating how much of his party’s fortunes rest on his personal brand. This will be crucial as FF’s majority sits by a very slim margin, having won in 2018 with just 50.02% of the vote, down from 59.14% in 2014.
As for his great rival Rabuka, following his split with the main Fijian indigenous party, the Liberal Social Democratic Party (SODELPA), he formed and now leads the People’s Alliance Party (PAP). The split came after Rabuka lost a leadership struggle with SODELPA stalwart Viliame Gavoka. Rabuka’s departure is seen as a setback for SODELPA, given that he attracted 77,040, or 42.55%, of SODELPA’s total votes in 2018.
When it comes to issues, the state of the economy, including the cost of living and the national debt, should be top of mind for most voters. COVID-19 has brought a sudden halt to tourism – which before the pandemic accounted for 39% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) – putting 115,000 people out of work. As a result, the government has borrowed heavily during this period, which the Economy Ministry says has seen the “debt-to-GDP ratio increase to over 80% at the end of March 2022, from around 48% before the pandemic” . .
The government said it borrowed to avoid economic collapse, while the opposition accused it of reckless spending. The World Bank put the poverty level at 24.1% in April 2022, but opposition politicians claimed that was an undercount. For example, the leader of the National Federation Party (NFP), Biman Prasad, claimed that the real unemployment rate was over 50%.
Adding to this pressure is inflation, which hit 4.7% in April – from 1.9% in February – and as the government blames rising prices for wheat, fuel and other basic commodities to the war in Ukraine, the opposition blames it on poor economic fundamentals.
Another factor that could define the outcome of the elections was the pre-election announcement of a coalition between the PAP and the NFP. By combining the two largest opposition parties, there is clearly hope of forming a viable multi-ethnic alternative to the FF.
However, this strategy is not without risks in the complex political environment of the country. In the 1999 elections, the coalition between Rabuka’s ruling Soqosoqo ni Vakavulewa ni Taukei party and the NFP failed when the story of Rabuka’s 1987 coup was highlighted during the campaign. This saw Fijian NFP supporters of Indian descent desert the party.
Whether history will repeat itself is one of the intriguing questions of this election. By some estimates, FF received 71% of the Indo-Fijian vote in 2014, and capturing that base of support is crucial to the opposition’s chances.
In the context of pressing economic and social problems, concerns hang over a smooth transfer of power. In addition to Fiji’s coup culture, these concerns are fueled by a constitutional provision that is supposed to give the military carte blanche to intervene in national politics.
Section 131(2) of the 2013 Fijian Constitution states: “The military forces of the Republic of Fiji shall be responsible at all times for the security, defense and welfare of Fiji and all Fijians” .
This has worried many opposition leaders, such as NFP President Pio Tikoduadua, who has called on the country to rethink how this aspect of the constitution should be understood.
JThese concerns are likely to increase with the prospect of a close or suspended election. As demonstrated after last year’s Samoan general election, the risk of a protracted dispute over the results could have negative implications for a stable outcome.
As such, it is essential that all candidates immediately commit to respecting the final outcome of the election, whatever it may be, and to laying the foundations for a peaceful transition of power. In the longer term interest, however, it will be necessary for Fiji to clarify the potential national power of the military implied by the constitution to end any undue speculation.
This article is based on an article published by the ANU’s Department of Pacific Affairs (DPA) as part of its “In Brief” series. The original paper can be found here.