The Fijian people will know this weekend who will lead SODELPA into the next election in 2022 and, on present indications, the name of the country’s next prime minister. Because in the absence of any reform of the ruling FijiFirst Party to make it more competitive after its near defeat in 2018, Frank Bainimarama’s government is heading for almost certain rejection. And whether SODELPA wins enough votes on its own in 2022 or forms a coalition, whoever emerges as its leader this weekend is bound to be widely seen as the country’s leader-in-waiting.
In the latest Fiji Sun-Western Force opinion poll published on Wednesday, the current opposition leader, Sitiveni Rabuka, was trailing the Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama by just three percentage points as preferred Prime Minister (42 per cent to 39 per cent) and SODELPA was trailing FijiFirst by the same margin (42 to 39) as the party most Fijians expect to win the next election. You would think that this – coupled with Rabuka’s impressive comeback at the last election in 2018 – surely makes him the favoured candidate to win the SODELPA leadership battle. Yet anyone willing to bet on the party making the logical choice is a fool easily parted with his money. In politics, as the saying goes, anything can happen and usually does. And whatever inroads Rabuka has made into the government’s once impregnable position, he has demonstrably failed to unite all elements of his party behind him.
SODELPA is currently torn between a multitude of competing agendas that it will need to reconcile if it wants to win in 2022. It has yet to embrace the reality that only a party that genuinely governs for all Fijians, and not just the iTaukei majority, can now gain political ascendency in Fiji. That means emulating FijiFirst in embracing the principle of a multi-ethnic, multi-faith Fiji and making competence in government, rather than ethnicity or religion, the dominant reason to vote SODELPA. Yet the immediate struggle being played out this week is between the past embodied by Sitiveni Rabuka and the discomfort many in the party feel about the baggage he carries from his coups of 1987 and the National Bank scandal a decade later and the future they see embodied in a new generation of potential leaders in the form of Aseri Radrodro and Ro Filipe Tuisawau.
Either of these men could be possible alternatives to Rabuka, especially if they were teamed with SODELPA’s brightest new star, Lynda Tabuya. Yet even their supporters must wonder whether they have time to stamp themselves on the public imagination with enough force to unseat Frank Bainimarama in the 24 months or so remaining to the election. Because to most Fijians, they are largely unknowns whereas Rabuka, along with Bainimarama, is one of the two biggest political names in Fiji since Ratu Mara.
A literal wildcard is the other leadership candidate, Viliame Gavoka, who carries baggage of his own in the form of certain views that are frankly off the wall. Despite his undoubted knowledge of the tourism industry, few people have really been able to take “Bill” seriously since he was arrested a decade ago for causing public alarm with his prophesy that Fiji would be struck by a tsunami at 2.30pm on June 23 2010. The nation is still waiting. Gavoka also happens to be the father-in-law of SOLDELPA’s bête noire, Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyam. When his daughter, Ela, told him she intended to marry the AG, he is said to have responded that she “may as well marry Himmler”. In the way of these things, an accommodation was reached and Gavoka is evidently an especially loving grandfather to the couple’s three children. But it’s still hard to imagine him in the parliament as opposition leader going head-to-head with his fiercely articulate son-in-law and being able to trigger an electoral tsunami for SODELPA in 2022.
That said, I am leaning to the opinion that SODELPA could choose a baboon this week and still win in 2022, such is FijiFirst’s seemingly reckless indifference to its own position. Oppositions don’t win elections, government’s lose them. And FijiFirst is burdened with a great deal of baggage of its own as the months tick by and Frank Bainimarama continues to ignore the warning signs to change course. By the time 2022 comes around, he will have been in power for 16 years so longevity is one of those dead weights. In most democracies, people get sick of the sight of their leaders after such a long time in the same way that couples don’t look at each other across the breakfast table with quite the same enthusiasm after a similar period. As the old saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt and political parties need to reinvent themselves with fresh faces and fresh talent or they are destined for the opposition benches. In my oft-stated opinion, the PM still has the mana to continue to lead but sorely needs a fresh face as his “sidekick” and designated successor and a revised and reinvigorated cabinet free of the controlling hand of his “Minister for Everything”, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum.
No amount of spin or wishful thinking can hide the fact that FijiFirst has a mountain to climb over the next 24 months. Fiji is in economic meltdown and while the government can’t be blamed for the Covid-19 crisis, it was ill-prepared because of the AG’s profligacy and the coming year and 2022 are going to be economic hell. The country is effectively being propped up by foreign loans and the big question is how much more the government can raise to soften the blows. While the number of people in the private sector who have been thrown onto the street now runs into the hundreds of thousands, the 27,000-strong civil service suffered no cuts in numbers or salaries at all this year. That means civil servants have largely been spared the hardship of many of their fellow citizens, apart from perhaps taking responsibility for family members who aren’t so fortunate. But whether that will continue to be the case next year is highly doubtful unless the government can raise more revenue and, all the while, Fiji is getting further and further into debt.
There are already two Fijis – those with jobs and those without. And effectively a country divided down the middle between the “haves” in and around the capital and an increasing number of “have nots” in the West and the rest of the country. The “haves” – plus the large contingent of expatriates in the diplomatic corps, NGOs and private enterprise – have presented a highly distorted picture of the true state of the economy. Attractive local rates at hotels and resorts mean lots of locals living the high life on weekends while their fellow citizens without jobs struggle to make ends meet. And this emergence of effectively two nations during the pandemic is patently a threat not only to social cohesion in Fiji but the Bainimarama government’s political fortunes.
The mounting stress on the face of the Attorney General and Minister of Economy, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, isn’t just a reflection of his personal political woes as half the cabinet and the Military Council agitate behind the scenes for his removal. He knows that it is going to be extremely difficult to avert a fiscal crisis next year by obtaining further loans, let alone grants, to keep the economy afloat and Fiji Airways flying. So all of his eggs are in the “Bula Bubble” basket – the desperate hope that the discovery of an effective Covid-19 vaccine can lead to border openings and see the mums and dads of Australia and New Zealand returning with their families to Fiji in enough numbers to fill the resorts and hotels that are the country’s economic backbone.
There is a ray of encouragement in the successful test results of the Astrazeneca-Oxford University and Pfizer- BioNTech vaccines and plans are afoot in Australia and NZ to begin making their citizens as Covid-resistant as possible as soon as possible. But how long before that will translate into border openings and occupied airline seats and hotel beds is anyone’s guess. Now that they have been forced to discover their own countries and many of them have purchased holiday homes, four-wheel drives and campervans, will Aussies and Kiwis flock back to traditional regional destinations like Fiji and Bali? Time will tell but one thing is certain. The process will not be quick. So the disruption to the Fijian economy will extend well into the latter part of next year and the next, which will be when the FijiFirst government has to go back to the people saying “didn’t we do well?” and “don’t we deserve another term in power?” Um, ah, er. Not if there’s a more attractive alternative.
The four contenders for the SODELPA leadership – Rabuka, Deputy Opposition Whip Radrodro, ousted president Ro Filipe Tuisawau and Gavoka – were subjected to formal interviews this week by a supposedly independent panel headed by veteran academic and politician, Tupeni Baba, and two other members – former MP and lawyer Semesa Karavaki and accountant Sepeti Tagilala. They’ve been assisted by an NGO called Pacific Peoples Recruiters, which found itself at the centre of a storm this week when its participation in the process was opposed by conservative pro-Rabuka figures led by MP Mosese Bulitavu. It generated a degree of heat when Bulitavu’s faction was publicly castigated by a party moderate, “Madrai Queen” Mere Samisoni, and then SODELPA’s new President, Ratu Epenisa Cakobau, evidently put his foot down and insisted the process be completed.
The CJ Patel Fiji Sun characteristically tried to exploit this division on behalf of its patron, the government, by putting it on the front page. Political spats are part and parcel of democracy and these disagreements are hardly likely to mean much where it really matters – SODELPA’s traditional base in the vanua. To many eyes and not just SODELPA supporters, the Sun’s negative coverage will have merely highlighted the positive nature of a selection process that’s a far cry from the rigidly controlled FijiFirst practice of candidates having to impress just two people – the PM and AG – and having no political future at all without their patronage.
A proper interview for SODELPA leader when they already have a demonstrably successful one in the form of Sitiveni Rabuka? Now there’s a novelty. Under SODELPA’s rules, any leader who loses an election automatically has to vacate the position and fight for his job. Over at FijiFirst, no-one would have had the gall to suggest that Frank Bainimarama subject himself to the indignity of a beauty pageant for having almost lost the last election. And when it comes to choosing FijiFirst candidates for the parliament, last time it was just Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum and his fundraising sidekick, Sanjay Kaba, who conducted interviews and gave prospective candidates the nod. As I’ve already reported, they declined to even interview the Secretary of the Military Council, Major-General (Rtd) Ioane Naivalurua, thereby turning Lyndon Johnson’s famous political dictum on its head by having an opponent outside the tent pissing in instead of inside pissing out, which the AG will come to regret if he hasn’t already. So which process is the more obviously democratic? SODELPA, of course.
For 33 years, Tupeni Baba has had ample reason to detest Sitiveni Rabuka, ever since Rabuka removed him along with the rest of Timoci Bavadra’s government in the first coup of 1987. So Rabuka clearly didn’t have the power as SODELPA leader to insist that the head of the interview panel this week be someone more impartial. Can you imagine Frank Bainimarama accepting such a thing at FijiFirst? Baba was at pains to say when the interviews were over that he “wasn’t against” any of the candidates who presented themselves but then added the astonishing caveat that he didn’t support anyone who’d come to power in a coup. Beg your pardon? It all left observers wondering where this leaves the current leader. Rabuka entered the process telling associates that he was confident of winning. “When, not if” was the phrase he used with a Grubsheet source. But it sure seems as if his confidence might have been misplaced if Tupeni Baba has anything to do with it. Which is undoubtedly why his acolyte, Mosese Bulitavu, led his forces in to try to upend the process once it began.
From Nemani Delaibatiki – the AG’s manservant at the CJ Patel Fiji Sun – we have seen a steady stream of prominent articles about the SODELPA leadership contest for weeks when this is a “journalist” who says nothing about the internal workings of the party of his ultimate boss at FijiFirst – its General Secretary, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum. Sitiveni Rabuka and Ro Filipe wisely chose not to play ball with Delaibatiki in using the Fiji Sun as a vehicle for their own leadership campaigns. So Delaibatiki’s “analysis” largely amounted to what Aseri Radrodro and Viliame Gavoka would do if they were successful, which was only half the story.
Delaibatiki has no shame at all about continually emphasising divisions in SODELPA and keeping up the pretence that FijiFirst doesn’t have any when the current divisions in the government are a matter of far more public interest than anything that afflicts the opposition. When has Nemani Delaibatiki reported one word of the Military Council’s demand for changes to the government or one word about the divisions in the cabinet? Not once. And the sensitive journalistic petals at the Fiji Sun wonder why I call it the Pyongyang Sun.
Being so chronically biased is one thing. Yet far from being effective cheerleaders for the FijiFirst government, the Fiji Sun seems oblivious to the actual damage it inflicts on the government’s cause even as it falls over itself to do its bidding. This week it gave prominence to the Prime Minister castigating the people of Kadavu for their criticism of the government’s performance and alleged physical attacks on civil servants. Nemani Delaibatiki wrote an editorial about how dreadful it all was. But neither he nor the paper appeared to grasp the real journalistic import of the grassroots rebellion it deplored – the fact that however much Kadavu may be a SODELPA stronghold and however much police efforts to impede the marijuana trade there may be resented, the FijiFirst government is decidedly on the nose. And not just in Kadavu but much of the rest of the country as well.
Imploring ordinary Fijians publicly not to attack government workers and expressing “disappointment” that people are unhappy isn’t the best way to inspire confidence and retain power, not least because such a condition can be infectious. If there are problems on Kadavu, the best course of action would surely have been for the government to try to address them quietly and methodically away from the public gaze. But no. The Prime Minister and the Fiji Sun appear to have caught the virus that has long plagued the AG in not being able to resist lecturing the people about their own shortcomings when they have the temerity to be dissatisfied. And until there’s a vaccine for that or finger-pointers are quarantined, it should be no surprise if the FijiFirst government has a rendezvous with defeat in 2022 when the people finally get to vent their frustrations in the privacy of an election booth.
This week came yet more proof that for his part, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum has neither political sense nor personal shame. Once again, the Fiji Sun was the instrument for highlighting an astonishing speech by the AG to mark Prophet Mohammed’s birthday in which he said that the best revenge against your enemies is forgiveness. This from a man whose vengeful nature, ruthlessness and enduring hatred for his enemies can be attested to by hundreds of Fijians who have made the mistake of crossing him. The hypocrisy of these remarks was breathtaking, as was the sight of the AG receiving the highest award that can be conferred by the State – a Companion of the Order of Fiji – in the midst of a police investigation into allegations that he made and detonated bombs that killed people during the 1987 coups.
Like many Fijians, I was astonished at what on earth possessed the authorities to proceed with this award in full public view when a docket relating to the AG’s alleged activities three decades ago was somewhere between police headquarters and the DPP’s Office. It displays a suspension of judgment that is breathtaking and deeply worrying in equal measure. Because if this is the quality of decision-making at the top, God help us. Shamelessness of this order is no way to win over the public when so many Fijians are suffering from an economic downturn that the AG arguably compounded by his mismanagement of the nation’s finances. Revenge, not forgiveness, is the AG’s own political destiny. And if it isn’t at the hands of his patron, the PM, and his own political kai vata, it will surely come at the hands of Fijian voters in 2022. Because they know that the AG thinks nothing of skewering his own enemies while having the temerity to preach forgiveness to everyone else.
The only comfort that one could draw from the scene at State House as the ribboned medal of Companion of the Order of Fiji was lowered around the AG’s neck is that honours of this nature are usually given at the end of a politician’s career. There have been increasing rumblings in recent days that the Prime Minister’s patience with the AG is fraying at the edges and changes may be afoot. Those with Frank Bainimarama’s personal political fortunes in mind have their fingers crossed that giving the AG the nation’s biggest “gong” is a harbinger that kaboom time is coming for Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum. But there have been many false dawns and no-one should hold their breath. Whoever the opposition announces will be their leader this weekend, the clock is ticking towards the next election as surely as any explosive device.
Editor’s note: This was posted earlier than usual to reflect the high level of interest in the SODELPA leadership choice.