“Disunity is death” is a truism in politics everywhere, as is another famous saying that “a party that can’t govern itself cannot govern the nation”. Yet it’s a clear sign of the decline of the ruling FijiFirst government that even a party as divided as the SODELPA opposition is now the preferred choice of the Fijian people to win the next election in 2022 – as evidenced in the latest Fiji Sun-Western Force opinion poll. SODELPA is wracked by internal division across a broad front, including open warfare between its various factions and leadership contenders. Yet such is the unpopularity of Frank Bainimarama’s government that the SODELPA leader, Sitiveni Rabuka, is now the preferred choice as prime minister.
Some of the reasons for that were obvious when Sitiveni Rabuka gathered together the disparate members of the opposition – including the leadership of the other opposition party, the National Federation Party – and embarked last week on what he called a “listening tour” of western Viti Levu. Grubsheet was startled to see Rabuka pile into a minibus with the NFP leader, Biman Prasad, and some of Prasad’s fellow MPs for the journey west. For a start, opposition politicians would be well advised to travel in separate vehicles in the event of accidents or politically inspired “incidents”. But you could easily see the symbolism they were trying to generate.
Here was the opposition crammed into one modest vehicle in stark contrast with the leaders of FijiFirst, gazing from behind the blackened windows of their speeding multiple vehicle convoys accompanied by gaggles of burly personal protection officers. The contrast couldn’t be greater, which is part of the genius of Sitiveni Rabuka at the present time – the humble and genial “listener” as opposed to the prescriptive arrogance of the Prime Minister and the perceived hand in his glove, the Attorney General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum.
The speeches the PM gives – written by Qorvis on the AG’s instructions – have never been so disconnected from the reality being experienced by many ordinary Fijians. Promising everyone reliable electricity by 2021 was merely the most obvious howler. You have been in power, Prime Minister, for 14 years and you can’t even deliver reliable power in Fiji’s capital, let alone the rest of the country. To coin one of your now frequent Americanisms (“oftentimes”, “airplanes”) who the hell are you kidding?
I have long been convinced that Rabuka came close to defeating Bainimarama at the last election because of his humility at the time that he was facing FICAC charges clearly designed to knock him out of contention. Instead of angry indignation at what many construed as a politically-motivated prosecution, Rabuka assumed the posture of an innocent party throwing himself at the mercy of the courts and trusting the judicial system to clear him of wrongdoing. And so it proved to be, first with a failed conviction on FICAC charges of electoral offences and then the dramatic acquittal on appeal that allowed Rabuka to finally contest the election and humiliate Frank Bainimarama by almost knocking him off his perch.
It was a masterful performance in November 2018 and a masterful performance now as Sitiveni Rabuka traverses the country playing the antithesis of what I have called the vei beci, viavialevu attitude of the government. And he is reaping the reward for that low-key image as the nation’s sympathetic ear as ordinary Fijians – and especially those in the West – reel from the economic downturn caused by the Covid-19 border closures.
Fijians currently inhabit a parallel universe that is giving an entirely distorted picture to the outside world of the extent to which ordinary people are suffering from the economic downturn. The government’s decision to use foreign borrowings to prop up the civil service and keep government workers in jobs – coupled with the large presence of free-spending diplomats and NGOs in the capital – means that there are few signs of overt suffering in Suva. Yet in the west – the epicentre of the tourism industry – there is genuine hardship. People are hurting and anger and resentment towards the government is consequently much greater.
It was into the midst of ordinary people in the West that Sitiveni Rabuka’s single mini bus cavalcade rode, carrying another potent image – the fact that he was accompanied by politicians from another political party who would normally be his rivals had they not been bound by their opposition to FijiFirst. The chemistry between Rabuka, Biman Prasad and his NFP colleagues, Pio Tikoduadua and Lenora Qereqeretabua, was not lost on ordinary people meeting them at market places and other sites they visited. The inherent message was clear: If we can put aside our differences and get together to come and listen to your challenges, why can’t the FijiFirst government work with other political parties to get us through this crisis?
The unity displayed between the SODELPA leader and the NFP team on their joint western tour produced the inevitable speculation. Are Rabuka and Biman Prasad intending to go into a formal coalition for the 2022 election to use their combined power to defeat FijiFirst? The notion was quickly knocked on the head by Sitiveni Rabuka and rightly so. Any suggestion of a coalition now would be counterproductive in provoking restlessness among the membership of both parties and be a yoke that both leaders would carry to the next election, exploited by FijiFirst at every turn. I could write the PM’s lines now. “Who is really running the opposition, Rabuka or Prasad?” Because it doesn’t take much political nous to see a classic political wedge – exploiting the fears of indigenous nationalists in SODELPA about a kai idia running the show and those Indo-Fijian NFP supporters who detest Rabuka for triggering their misery in 1987 fleeing the party altogether.
So no, there will be no coalition now but that doesn’t mean SODELPA and the NFP can’t find common cause to come together in 2022 if it means beating Bainimarama, even if only on the basis that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. The hatred of the FijiFirst government is now so visceral that a lot of differences that might otherwise prove an impediment to cooperation would be set aside.
It was also not in the least bit surprising during his western tour that his past came back to haunt Sitiveni Rabuka – the perpetrator of the coups of 1987 that saw a mass exodus of Indo-Fijians and many of the country’s brightest and most enterprising people. And the man who let the genie of ethnic and religious supremacy out of the bottle, resulting in the beating, rape and robbery of ordinary Indo-Fijians and many years of instability that the country is arguably still grappling with 33 years later.
At a community meeting in the heart of Indo-Fijian Fiji – the Field 18 mandir in Rarawai, Ba, questioning from the audience produced the following memorable response from Rabuka: “Do not fear me anymore. You can have your confidence in me and I will not betray your confidence”, he said. The SODELPA leader said the person he was today was a far cry from the man who overthrew the democratically-elected Bavadra government in 1987. “What you saw of Rabuka in 1987 was totally different to Rabuka post 1997”, he said, referring to his cooperation with the NFP leader at the time, Jai Ram Reddy, that produced the 1997 constitution. “I owe a lot to the National Federation Party and Fijians of Indian origin. I owe a lot to you”, Rabuka said, adding that Fijians of Indian descent “have done a lot for the development of this nation”.
“Do not fear me anymore”. It’s an acknowledgement that Indo-Fijians once had ample grounds to fear Sitiveni Rabuka in terms of depriving them of their rightful stake in the country. Even to this day, many thousands of Indo-Fijians loathe Rabuka for the suffering he inflicted on them. Yet to turn an old saying on its head: Can a leopard really change his spots? Can Rabuka not only admit that he was wrong, because talk is notoriously cheap, but actually come to the realisation that he really was wrong? That the indigenous nationalist and Christian tiger he let out of the bag in 1987 was not only a personal mistake but a mistake of historic proportions in terms of Fiji’s development that he now recognises and is committed to rectifying?
These are the questions that Sitiveni Rabuka will need to answer and the fears that he will need to assuage if he is to broaden his political base widely enough to lead again in 2022. Yet already, he is feeling the pull of the same forces he once led who want him to continue to adopt a more ethno-nationalist approach on the part of SODELPA. Even the rhetoric of the likes of Niko Nawaikula and Mosese Bulitavu scares the hell out of many Indo-Fijian voters. So the main questions Rabuka must answer are these: 1/ Can he persuade his own party to set aside its obsession with indigenous advancement and commit to governing for the benefit of all Fijians? And 2/ Can he persuade the nation that even if SODELPA makes all the right noises before the 2022 election, that the party and its leader can be believed? OK, Rambo doesn’t want us to fear him anymore. But can we trust him when he talks about his Damascene conversion to the principle of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious Fiji?
All this assumes, of course, that Sitveni Rabuka can again win the party’s endorsement to lead when the SODEPLA leadership is thrown open next month. He is so far ahead of his next rival in the polls, Aseri Radrodro, and for the first time, in such a commanding position to beat Frank Bainmarama, that his selection ought to be a given. Yet there is no such thing as certainty in politics and the sentiment within SODELPA for a change to someone with less political baggage than Rabuka is significant enough in itself to cause an upset.
What Sitiveni Rabuka needs to do to beat Frank Bainimarama is not only win over his own party but win over the country. It is not enough to tell pocket meetings that the leopard has changed his spots. He must develop consistent messaging and use every opportunity to lay to rest his own sorry record and that of his supporters. He has already publicly apologised for the events of 1987. But he needs to lay out a cogent case for non-indigenous people to support SODELPA and especially, to dent Frank Bainimarama’s current monopoly on some of these constituencies, including a broad mass of Indo-Fijians. The government’s current unpopularity, and especially that of the Attorney General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, means that it can be done. But do Sitiveni Rabuka and the rest of SODELPA have the resolve and discipline to do it? Based on my own personal experience, at least, I have my doubts.
Even the more progressive elements of SODELPA seem mired in old fashioned communal thinking and that includes Lynda Tabuya, one of the party’s obvious stars. I was struck by an encounter we had when I was responsible for the communications effort for Fiji’s presidency of COP-23. I had asked Lynda Tabuya – as I had asked Biman Prasad – to please try to avoid politicising the COP effort because it was non-political and Fiji needed to speak to the world on the climate issue with one voice. Tabuya’s response? “Yes, we are supporting COP because it is good for the iTaukei”. No, Lynda. It is good for all Fijians. Yet if this was the response from one of the most liberal and progressive members of SODELPA, what hope is there with the ultra-nationalists for progress towards a more inclusive approach to the broad range of national issues?
The undoubted achievement of the FijiFirst government in 2014 was to persuade Fijians that they governed for all and that’s what Rabuka will have to do to have any chance of getting a sizeable working majority in 2022. On his side will be the sheer longevity of the Bainimarama government – which will have been in power for 16 years by the time the next election comes around – coupled with its economic mismanagement and increasing arrogance and self-entitlement. Also on Rabuka’s side will be the old truism that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them. But unfortunately for him and SODELPA, the amount of previous baggage that Rabuka will again take into the 2022 campaign will be a significant burden unless he does a great deal more consciously to relieve himself of that burden.
If Frank Bainimarama continues to ignore the advice of the Military Council and a significant proportion of his own cabinet to carry out a fundamental reform of FijiFirst, including the removal of the AG, my personal view is that not only can he be beaten in 2022 but he almost certainly will be. Yet in the interests of national stability and continuing confidence in Fiji, the leader who replaces him cannot have the baggage that Sitiveni Rabuka has and successfully lead the nation.
In the two years remaining to the election, Rabuka has the opportunity to jettison that baggage and set SODELPA on a new course of inclusiveness and genuine opportunity for all. If he can’t, SODELPA doesn’t deserve to win. But if he can, he is quite capable – with the right sincerity and commitment and given Bainimarama’s current weakness and utter dependence on the AG– of making a reality of Bainimarama’s worst nightmare and achieving the most historic comeback in Fijian politics of all time.