I expressed the view in last week’s curtain raiser for the vote on the SODELPA leadership that the party could choose a baboon and still have a good chance of beating FijiFirst in the 2022 election, such is the government’s parlous electoral standing. But never in my wildest imaginings would I have thought that SODELPA would choose a lame duck in the form of Viliame “Bill” Gavoka – the AG’s father-in-law and Fiji’s resident Nostradamus of impending doom. Like tens of thousands of my fellow citizens, I am still shaking my head in astonishment that Gavoka emerged from the pack and wonder what on earth possessed SODELPA to choose him ahead of someone with proven electoral appeal in the case of the current leader, Sitiveni Rabuka, and a great deal of potential appeal in the case of the two other leadership contenders – Aseri Radrodro and Ro Filipe Tuisawau.
Bill Gavoka cuts a genial enough figure yet arguably carries almost as much baggage as Rabuka, who continues to labour under the burden of his two coups and the collapse of the National Bank of Fiji yet still manages to look like a winner. For a start, Gavoka has zero credibility in many quarters after he was arrested in 2010 for prophesying that Fiji would be hit by a tsunami that never came but sparked all sorts of social and economic mayhem, including tourism workers staying away from their jobs. We know that SODELPA is a broad enough church to accommodate all sorts of weird and wonderful characters. Yet how on earth the party could have alighted on one of the weirdest to lead it with the aim of that person eventually leading the nation is a source of wonder for any Fijian grounded in political reality.
“Looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, is a duck” is an old saying that sums up the bleeding obvious in any situation. And it didn’t take long for Bill Gavoka’s lame duck status to be confirmed with the disclosure that he will effectively have to share the leadership of SODELPA with Sitiveni Rabuka. While he has been elected leader of the organisational arm of SODELPA, Rabuka remains its parliamentary leader and retains the official title of Leader of the Opposition right up until the next election. So even as Gavoka sits on the opposition benches as an MP, it is Rabuka who will evidently be running the show – an extraordinary situation unparalleled in other parliaments in the region.
The practical effect is that at best, Gavoka has official authority to influence policy but SODELPA’s voice in the parliament and in the country will still be that of Rabuka. Under normal circumstances, I’d be using the word “predecessor” but that simply isn’t the case. Rabuka is not dead. Politically he is as alive as ever. And as the SODELPA ducks line up in the parliament for the coming session, it will be clear to anyone watching that he has a much healthier coat of feathers than his supposed “boss” hobbling in beside him.
Fifteen of the 21 SODELPA MPs are reported to have aligned themselves with Rabuka – (in alphabetical order: Mitieli Bulanauca, Mosese Bulitavu, Inosi Kuridrani, Dr Antonio Lalabalavu, Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu, Ratu Suliano Matanitobua, Ratu Tevita Navurelevu, Niko Nawaikula, Adi Litia Qionibaravi, Salote Radrodro, Simione Rasova, Jese Saukuru, Lynda Tabuya, Ro Filipe Tuisawau and Peceli Vosanibola.) That means they effectively regard Rabuka as their leader, not Gavoka, who reportedly commands the allegiance of just six MPs.
If they have any sense of self preservation, all 21 will be setting their eyes on the election less than 24 months away and perhaps a lot sooner if the FijiFirst government calls an early poll. Self preservation is paramount in politics. And if they are not asking themselves the following question already, they soon will be: Which person – Sitiveni Rabuka or Viliame Gavoka – is best equipped under Fiji’s d’Hondt electoral system to attract the highest number of votes in the country to carry me back into the parliament? Only the deluded or those hell bent on suicide would say Gavoka. Even the new “leader” said as much when he described Rabuka as an icon and freely acknowledged that SODELPA needed him to get it across the line in 2022. Oh really? So where do you come in, Bill?
As the lame-duck Gavoka emitted his first quack in the immediate aftermath of his ascension calling for SODELPA to unify behind him, you could hear in your mind’s ear the metaphoric screech of metal-on-metal as the ostensible losers began sharpening their knives. Even in the full glare of the cameras, Sitiveni Rabuka declined to endorse the legitimacy of the result and pledge allegiance to the new order. So already, the lame duck looks like a soon-to-be dead duck in that it is only a matter of time before his ascension as party leader is reversed. Indeed, I am emboldened enough by last weekend’s extraordinary events to play Nostradamus myself and make the following prediction: that Viliame Gavoka will not only never be prime minister because he is unelectable but will be lucky to remain at the head of SODELPA in any guise for long as it gradually dawns on the party that it has made a terrible mistake and the clock ticks relentlessly towards 2022. Politics is about winning elections, not internal party machinations. And I’ll wager that history will eventually consign the lame duck to the political wok.
“Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?” is bound to be the reaction among Bill Gavoka’s supporters to this prediction, given my record as a long-time Bainimarama supporter. But seriously. Everything that happened last weekend was a political car crash of epic proportions – inept, short-sighted and the handiwork of amateurs. Politics is about numbers and getting enough numbers to win decisively in any ballot so that its credibility cannot be questioned. And the anti-Rabuka and anti-Tabuya forces failed woefully to secure enough numbers to do that.
Gavoka beat Rabuka by the narrowest of margins – 21 votes to 20 – and Filimoni Vosarogo’s winning margin against Lynda Tabuya was the same – a single vote. With apologies to Winston Churchill, never in the field of political conflict has victory owed so much to so little. Certainly, rarely in the broad sweep of political history have single vote margins kept any political leader in the job for long. Victory for Gavoka and Vosarogo is not only pyrrhic but merely a lull before the number crunching begins again, if it hasn’t already. And the strained politeness and awkward body language in the wake of this “victory” tells us that nothing has really been settled at all.
So what happened? It’s clear that under the new SODELPA President, Ratu Epenisa Cakobau, and the “moderate” faction around him that it was “get Rabuka” time. This faction evidently includes such figures in the party as the man Gavoka also defeated in the leadership contest, Aseri Radrodro, along with the still-influential Ro Teimumu Kepa, Anale Jare and Mikaele Leawere. And clearly behind them is a broad mass of ordinary party members who believe that it’s time to put the old warhorse out to pasture and dispose of the baggage he carries from 1987 that still alienates much of the electorate. This group clearly had the numbers on the Management Board to produce a shock upset but only just. Even the most casual observer would have noticed that the panel that interviewed the four candidates was headed by someone in the form of Tupeni Baba who has detested Rabuka ever since he removed him and the entire government of Timoci Bavadra at gunpoint in 1987. Why was it only during the interview process that the penny dropped for Rabuka supporters, most volubly Mosese Bulitavu, that what once seemed a sure thing – a decisive victory for Rabuka – was slipping away from them? Bulitavu tried to stop the interview process but was howled down by the moderates before Ratu Epenisa ruled that the process continue. And by then, it was too late.
One suspects there was a great deal of hubris involved. Having taken Frank Bainimarama to the brink of defeat in 2018, there has long been a sense of inevitability that Rabuka would carry the SODELPA banner into the election of 2022 and win. That’s certainly what much of the country had been led to believe – that Rabuka would be chosen as leader again simply on the grounds of logic. Because there is nothing logical about replacing him with someone who is 70 years old and who many regard as an amiable crackpot. Most reasonable people would have been able to understand the logic of replacing the ageing warhorse with someone younger who was demonstrably free of Rabuka’s divisive legacy. But replacing him with someone of the same generation who is neither as smart nor as popular makes no sense at all. Except to those whose loathing for Rabuka has blinded them to the bleeding obvious.
For his part, Sitiveni Rabuka made a monumental mistake that is extremely common in politics everywhere. He took his apparently commanding position for granted and didn’t put in the hard yards needed to solidify the votes behind him. Irrespective of his political mana and the way in which he and Frank Bainimarama tower over the political landscape, every leader has to fight for their position. They have to continuously woo everyone with a vote in the party – flattering, cajoling and enticing them with the spoils of office to come and the glorious horizon that awaits their supporters. If he was thinking straight and had the right people around him, Rabuka would have known this, given his previous experience at the top. Yet instead of counting the numbers, he seems to have spent more time counting his blessings, telling even the media that he was “confident of winning” and privately saying that it was a question of “when, not if”, that would happen. As mistakes in politics go, it doesn’t much worse, as Frank Bainmarama also found to his cost in 2018 because of his misplaced trust in Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum.
As the veteran of many disappointments, Rabuka took his defeat in stony politeness. But the shock of it all flowed in Linda Tabuya’s tears and was written all over her face. To have lost by one vote in any political contest is excruciating. But there is little point in blaming Ratu Epenisa or Tupeni Baba or any of her other opponents. To a large extent, this defeat was self-inflicted and it is to be hoped that as SODELPA’s rising star, Lynda Tabuya has learnt a valuable lesson.
Rule 101 of politics is take nothing for granted. All the while, Ratu Epenisa Cakobau and those opposed to Rabuka continuing as leader were quietly marshalling their own forces and counting their own numbers. What they don’t seem to have realised is that just getting over the line isn’t good enough. You have to win so decisively that any voices of dissension are silenced and the authority of the new leader is unquestioned. Which is why another Churchill quote comes to mind in any analysis of whether installing Bill Gavoka and Filimoni Vosarogo with winning margins of one vote in any way settles the SODELPA leadership issue. “It is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it may be the end of the beginning”. To be followed, in short order, by more plotting, instability and leadership speculation that will eat away at Bill Gavoka’s authority like white ants in untreated timber. He and those around him are singularly lacking in the mongrel ruthlessness and cunning of someone like Gavoka’s son-in-law that might save them.
With the leadership of the nation at stake, this is not the time for niceties. Gavoka might be a lovely bloke to his friends yet he is singularly ill-equipped to run a major party supposedly preparing to take over the reins of government. And the notion of Bill Gavoka as prime minister of Fiji is risible to anyone sensible who has endured his off- the-cuff speeches in the parliament – rambling, ill-considered and frequently illogical, with a strong emphasis on the rights of the iTaukei majority rather than all Fijians and an insistence on the pre-eminence of Christianity in national life in defiance of the secular state and common decency towards those of other religious beliefs. No-one is saying that he can’t have his private views but publicly upholding the rights of one ethnic group and one religion over others is no qualification for national leadership in the 2020s. You either govern for all Fijians or not at all.
Whatever you think about what Sitiveni Rabuka did in 1987 or his failings as prime minister in the 1990s, it seemed to most sensible people that he was still the best thing SODELPA had going for it right now to take the party into power. It’s certainly what Frank Bainimarama thinks or he wouldn’t have recently branded Rabuka as a “snake” ready to slither onto the government benches. Bainimarama clearly fears Rabuka as the person with the best chance of dislodging him in 2022. So it’s an eternal puzzle why he and the rest of the nation regard Rabuka as prime minister-in-waiting but not his own party.
If it really was a matter of skewering Rabuka at all costs, surely SODELPA could have opted for generational change – offering up either Aseri Radrodro or Ro Filipe Tuisawau as a total break with the past and laying to rest SODELPA’s bogeys once and for all. Choosing either one of them would have made some sense, especially had the Party selected Lynda Tabuya to be their running mate as deputy. But to choose Gavoka makes no sense unless a policy of collective hara-kiri is to replace indigenous advancement as the central raison d’être of SODELPA’s political agenda. Of all the people least capable of beating Frank Bainimarama, it has to be Bill Gavoka, the father-in-law of Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, Bainimarama’s side-kick and easily Fiji’s most unpopular politician. So for Gavoka to burst from the pack last weekend seemed incontrovertible proof that political suicide is now SODELPA’s main political agenda, which includes handing the “snake’s” head to Bainimarama on a plate.
Under attack over his family ties to his loathed son-in-law (and you could almost hear the screams emanating from the exclamation marks on Facebook), Gavoka played down the connection by saying that “family is family and politics is politics”. As if he can successfully lead the opposition and his son-in-law can be the real power behind the government and everyone can still be civil at family get-togethers. Gavoka’s naivety on this issue is breathtaking. Within hours, some SODELPA supporters were announcing their break with the party convinced that the AG had either engineered Gavoka’s ascension or would control him or both. But just as breathtaking was the naivety of most SODELPA board members in thinking they could choose the AG’s father-in-law to be their leader and it wouldn’t be an issue.
There’s now a great deal of speculation in Fiji about Sitiveni Rabuka scooping up his supporters and forming a breakaway party but I personally believe that won’t be necessary. Gavoka’s single vote win means that this is far from being the final whistle. All Rabuka has to do is behave as if nothing has happened, maintain his ascendancy in the parliament and in the electorate and sit back while Gavoka implodes. And that process is already underway.
On Tuesday, Bill Gavoka gave an interview with the ABC’s Pacific Beat that must have set hearts sinking among those who’d just elected him as leader. For a start, he said his main priority was strengthening the position of the iTaukei when any leader who wants to unseat FijiFirst should clearly be saying that he intends to represent all Fijians even if what he said is true. “On one side, people might say we are racist with our economic enhancement but on the other it improves economy and health,” he said. Yes, Bill. Ten points for honesty for acknowledging the racism bit yourself but it’s not going to get you the votes you need from other communities. Yet what will have really made SODELPA hearts sink was Gavoka’s response when he was asked if Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum should step aside during the current police investigation into whether he made and detonated bombs that killed people in 1987. Parroting his son-in-law about “due process” being followed in the case, the new SODELPA leader said the Party “would let the law take its course and would not interfere in the matter”.
Set against the call by Mahendra Chaudhry – the Labour Party leader and former Prime Minister – for the AG to stand aside, Gavoka’s answer was startling for its lack of resolve to make political capital out of his son-in-law’s predicament. He didn’t even venture the opinion that whether or not he is eventually prosecuted for the alleged events 33 years ago, the AG has some serious explaining to do. Because Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum still hasn’t specifically denied the allegations against him in any public setting. Gavoka’s equivocation will have only confirmed the worst suspicions of some SODELPA members that perhaps family and politics aren’t quite as separate in Gavoka’s mind as he makes out. The suggestion that he might go easy on his son-in-law when it comes to the cut and thrust of day-to-day politics is something that will haunt Gavoka at every turn.
My own feeling is that the Party will soon realise the terrible mistake it has made and another leadership contest will eventually be triggered. Anyone who thinks it will be too late after a few months to do so before 2022 has forgotten what happened in the courts 2018. In a matter of days, Rabuka went from being prospective feather duster facing exclusion from the election to rooster having been given the go-ahead by the High Court to contest the poll and taking Frank Bainimarama to the brink of defeat. As one of the titans of Fijian politics, Rabuka is so well established in the national consciousness that he doesn’t need time but opportunity. And if he is patient and smart, that opportunity will almost certainly come again. There is certainly no room for complacency on the part of the FijiFirst, which needs to proceed as a matter of urgency with the reforms advocated by much of the cabinet and the military. Because in 2022 – even on current indications – it’s much more likely that Bainimarama will be staring down “the snake” than the lame duck.