Almost 16 years after he launched a military coup d'état and installed himself as prime minister of Fiji, Frank Bainimarama’s reign has finally come to an end.
His successor is set to be Sitiveni Rabuka, leader of the centre-right People's Alliance, who after six days of post-election drama—including allegations of voter fraud, police interrogations, and threats of army intervention—managed to form a three-party coalition with the Social Democrat Liberal Party (SODELPA) and the National Federation Party on Tuesday. This coalition will hold 29 seats in parliament, while Bainimarama’s FijiFirst party will hold 26.
Romitesh Kant, an Indo-Fijian researcher in Fiji politics at the Australian National University, described the developments as “one of the most significant elections in recent political history”—not only because of the duration of Bainimarama’s decade-and-a-half tenure, but also because “in Fiji's independent political history, we've never had a peaceful transfer of power.”
Now, he added, it’s a matter of waiting to see how long that stability holds, and whether all parties—not only those in the political sphere but also the military and certain others with “vested interests”—will respect the will of the people.
“The results signal that the voters in Fiji actually want a change in government,” Kant told VICE World News. “We will [now] see whether for the first time in history the peaceful transfer of power takes place or not.”
The prevailing mood in Fiji when the final outcome was announced on Tuesday night was one of triumphant celebration. Fireworks rocketed into the sky and a chorus of car horns rang out as throngs of locals swarmed out onto the streets to sing, dance, and wave their nation’s flag.
“Since yesterday's announcement, it was as if the Fiji team just won a huge game, like in the World Cup or something,” Elisabeta Waqa, who lives in the nation’s capital of Suva, told VICE World News on Wednesday.
Now though, as the initial excitement wears off and both Bainimarama and the military remain silent on their electoral defeat, a sense of trepidation has started creeping in.
“That was the mood last night. But for me personally, I kind of expect that the outgoing government is not going to let go all that easily. I expect that they will try whatever they can to come back into power,” she said.
When asked on Wednesday what her prevailing emotion was, Elisabeta said she was “anxious.”
“I was very happy yesterday, I was very cheerful. Everybody was celebrating. But today it's just back to being anxious… [because Banimarama] hasn’t said anything. Hasn't affirmed to people that they will accept the results. Nothing. He hasn't addressed the public at all.”
Even from Australia, Kant has experienced this same emotional rollercoaster—the triumphant high and now, just 24 hours later, the sinking sense of uncertainty as the strongman leader’s silence becomes more and more deafening.
“Yesterday… people were out in the streets talking about how finally they are free. Today it's a bit more subdued,” he said on Wednesday. “Everyone I know, my friends in Fiji, are messaging me saying ‘That was short lived, that hope for change,’ and now everyone's just glued onto their Facebook and their Twitter to see what updates are coming in. People are asking, ‘Where is Mr Banimarama?’... ‘Why haven't they said anything?’”
“A police commissioner came out urging that people should remain calm… [but] I think in Fiji, given our history, there is the fear that instability is just around the corner.”
Such fear is not new. In the lead-up to this general election, there was much speculation and concern as to whether Bainimarama, and the military with whom he is closely aligned, would accept the results of a public vote if he were ousted as leader of the country.
When Bainimarama was asked about this last week, he responded that “of course” he would respect the result—then dismissed the question, posed by an Australian journalist, by retorting “Haven’t they got any intelligent reporter from Australia to come and ask me a better question than that?”
Fears that certain people might derail the democratic process have continued to plague the election even after Fijian voters cast their ballots on Wednesday, Dec. 14.
After polls closed on Thursday, and following a technical glitch with the country’s election results app during which Bainimarama suddenly took the lead over him, Rabuka raised suspicions around “anomalies” in the count and wrote a letter to Fiji’s army commander asking the military to step in. On Friday evening, Rabuka was taken in for questioning by Fijian police in relation to the letter—but left the station shortly thereafter saying he hadn’t been arrested or charged.
“I think in Fiji, given our history, there is the fear that instability is just around the corner.”
Earlier that day, the vote count had revealed that the People’s Alliance and FijiFirst were in a deadlock, with both parties failing to secure a majority of seats. But by Tuesday, Dec. 20, Rabuka’s political fortunes had swung back around in his favour: Sodelpa, the so-called “kingmaker party” that suddenly held the balance of power in the hung parliament, decided to ally itself with the People’s Alliance, awarding him an electoral victory.
When acknowledging his ultimate triumph over Bainimarama, Rabuka described the outcome as the start of a new chapter for Fiji, and thanked the Fijian people for backing a change of leadership.
“I'd like to thank them very much for giving us the honour of forming the next government of Fiji—a government we hope will bring the change that people have been calling out for over the last few years,” Rabuka said. “It's going to be an onerous task, it will not be easy as it was never easy to try and dislodge an incumbent government.”
68-year-old Bainimarama, who began his career as a naval officer and commander of the Fijian Military Forces, first rose to power as the leader of Fiji in January 2007, weeks after he instigated a coup that overthrew Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase. He reintroduced democratic elections to the country in 2014, and retained his leadership by consecutively winning the majority vote across two general elections in 2014 and 2018.
During his 16-year reign, the former military leader garnered a reputation as an authoritarian strongman who undermined democratic norms. The ultimate triumph of Rabuka and his tripartite coalition over the FijiFirst party is, according to Kant, a win for freedom of speech, freedom of association, trade union rights, indigenous rights, and human rights more broadly.
As he pointed out, the People’s Alliance and National Freedom Party have previously signalled that, should they form a government, they would get rid of many if not all of the restrictive decrees that Bainimarama and his government have put in place since 2006, in order to “make sure that human rights are not restricted in that way, [allowing] for people to question governance [and] question authority.”
“I expect that they will try whatever they can to come back into power.”
It’s worth noting that Rabuka, 74, is also a former military alumnus who seized power by launching two separate coups d'état in 1987, earning him the nickname “Rambo.” The first of these was instigated to overthrow the Indo-Fijian government of the time and assert the alleged supremacy of indigenous Fijians. The second was to abrogate Fiji’s constitution and declare the South Pacific island nation a republic. Rabuka has since apologised for staging the coups.
While Kant points out that both Bainimarama and Rabuka share strongman tendencies in their approach to politics, however, the difference, he suggested, is that Rabuka—who ruled Fiji for seven years from 1992—seems to be a little less hard-fisted than Bainimarama, who has maintained a relatively tight rein over Fiji for the past decade-and-a-half. As Kant puts it, Rabuka has in recent years positioned himself “a leader who could be a bit more consultative and consensus-oriented, as opposed to Mr. Bainimarama's authoritarian style.”
Despite the uncertainty as to how fixed the election result actually is, and whether the situation might change in the coming days and weeks, the change of leadership in Fiji has been broadly praised by political commentators.
Steven Ratuva, director of the Pacific studies centre at the University of Canterbury, celebrated the new government as a “great opportunity for more progressive reform in Fiji which will have broader implications for the Pacific region, given Fiji's position as the regional, economic, political and communications hub.”
“For the people of Fiji,” he said, “it’s like a big burden has been unloaded off their collective consciousness after 16 years of Bainimarama rule.”
Elisabeta echoed the sentiment, but is cautious not to get her hopes up. She senses that it’s too early to throw off that burden just yet.
“There is hope for us. But it may be too early—until the first parliament sitting we are really kind of walking on eggshells,” she said. “We're sick of this government. We're sick of the administration. And we just want change.”
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