Fiji General Election of 2022: Slow march out of authoritarianism

With retired Major General Sitiveni Rabuka back at the helm, there is hope that the indigenous iTaukei population's concerns on land and resources including rampant poverty and unemployment in their community will finally be addressed. 

By Sanjay Ramesh

The FijiFirst Party in Fiji is the ruling party in the country and established an iron rule on Fijians since its election in 2014. The ethnic composition of Fiji is roughly 30 percent Indo-Fijians, 65 percent iTaukei Fijians, and 5 percent others including those of Pacific Islander origin and Europeans.

The electoral system and the electoral rules are based on the 2013 Constitution, imposed by the 2006 coup makers, led by the retired Rear Admiral Voreqe Bainimarama, who led a campaign against the Soqosoqo ni Duavata ni Lewenivanua government of former late Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase since 2003, leading to a military coup in December 2006. This coup dressed up as a “clean up” campaign against corruption saw Bainimarama purge publicly owned corporations, move closer to China and impose public emergency regulations that disallowed all forms of political activities against the regime, and severely restricted fundamental freedoms, including media freedom.

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Initially, the people of Fiji, tired of ethnic politics, embraced the principles and policies of the FijiFirst Party (FFP) but by 2018, the novelty of the FFP Government peeled off when former coup leader Retired Major General Sitiveni Rabuka took over the leadership of Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA) and marshaled the largest percentage of iTaukei Indigenous Fijian votes, but election irregularities ensured that the FFP continued in government with 50.02 percent of the votes.

The next four years were marred by COVID (2021-2022) followed by changes to the electoral act that imposed needless restrictions on women and opposition parties with controversial and perhaps most concerning was the trial and conviction of Suva lawyer Richard Naidu over a spelling correction on Facebook of a judgment, which according to international jurists was a trivial emendation that prompted the Minister for Justice of the FijiFirst Party, Aiyaz Saiyad Khaiyum, to file a public interest legal action.

The abuse of legislative majority was not only restricted to Fiji parliament as opposition candidates and parties were subjected to harsh requirements of fully costing their election promises to the satisfaction of the Fiji Elections Office including any polling after the Fiji Sun Western Force poll, showing support for the FFP government slipping away.

Key candidates of the opposition were summarily referred to FICAC, which became the political prosecution arm of the state with opposition Lynda Tabuya and Sajjal Narayan of the People’s Alliance Party (PAP) charged with breach of electoral laws. Even the leader of the National Federation Party, Professor Biman Chand Prasad, an economist by profession was charged by the Fiji Police for violating the modesty of a person, only to have the charge dismissed by the Office of the Public Prosecution. The opposition and their supporters were quite distressed by the ongoing restrictions and questioned whether restrictions on opposition facilitated rational choice.

The Mission Observer Group (MoG) under the co-Chair of Australia failed to see fundamental problems with the electoral system and the electoral process by endorsing the official version of the electoral count. While the MoG was enjoying Fijian hospitality, opposition candidates were being threatened, intimidated, and harassed by FFP thugs. The counting of the votes was marred by a “glitch” on 14 December 2022 and for two and a half hours, the Results Management System (RMS) had IT issues which were not explained properly by the Supervisor of Election (SoE) and for some reason during the “glitch”, FijiFirst resumed its lead in votes, leaving many opposition parties questioning the integrity of the vote counting process. 

The opposition parties wrote a letter to the SoE, the Commander of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces, and the President of Fiji and initiated a voters’ petition, arguing significant discrepancies between what was reported by ballot invigilators and the Results Management System. The SoE protested that there was no law in place for a vote recount and continued with the manual count much to the concern of opposition parties. There are vote count issues that require auditing including some 20.000 votes incorrectly allocated to FijiFirst. Was it innocent misallocation or deliberate since electoral projections suggested People’s Alliance and National Federation Party victory?

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Late in the evening of 15 December, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) took People’s Alliance Party leader, Sitiveni Rabuka, and the party secretary, Sakiasi Ditoka,  for two-hour questioning at the Criminal Investigation Headquarters in Suva, and at the same time arrested and questioned the President of Fiji’s Methodist Church, Reverend Illi Vunisuwai, who was taken in for questioning at the Valelevu Police Station in Nasinu. Vunisuwai had sent a letter on behalf of the Methodist Church to the President of Fiji expressing concern about the vote counting process and inconsistencies in the results management application. We unite Fiji Deputy Leader Dr. Jone Hawea and candidate Abel Camillo were investigated and charged for allegedly calling for a mass gathering to protest against the 2022 Fiji election count at the Vodafone Arena in Suva. By 18 December 2022, there were no clear winners with FFP with 26 seats and PAP and NFP with 26, and SODELPA with 3 seats.

On 20 December 2022, Social Democratic Liberal Party pledged its support to the Peoples’ Alliance and the National Federation Parties giving them a majority of 29. On the same day, Fiji Police detained the leader of of the SODELPA youth wing who called for a petition by SODELPA voters against a coalition with FFP.

When the country thought that they were ready to install the new government, SODELPA General Secretary, Lenaitasi Duru,  resigned from SODELPA and wrote a letter to the President of Fiji stating that that some of the members of the SODELPA Management Board who voted were no longer members and a new vote was warranted. The President responded that he was in no hurry to convene parliament. But a bigger issue was emerging when the Commissioner of Police and the General Secretary of the Fiji First Party accused the opposition for targeting Indo-Fijians. However, it soon became evident that rumours of attacks on Indo-Fijians were orchestrated by a fake Facebook account as members of the public confirmed to various media outlets that there were no such attacks as alleged.

The FFP Military Council along with the Commissioner of Police approached the military commander but by then the SODELPA Management Board met again on 23 Dec and reaffirmed their support for the PAP-NFP Coalition. After a razor thin vote for the second time in a week, the President convened parliament on Christmas eve where Retired Major General Sitiveni Rabuka won the secret ballot by 28 votes to become Fiji’s Prime Minister. The former Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama became leader of opposition and a new Rabuka cabinet was sworn in the afternoon on 24 December.

In the 2022 election, the ruling FFP and the PAP had 55 candidates contesting the election, while the NFP and SODELPA had 54 candidates each. The Fiji Labour Party had 42 approved candidates, Unity Fiji 38, We Unite Fiji 20, All Peoples Party 14, and New Generation Party 5. There were 2 independents, but independents can’t get the 5 percent threshold required to win any seat in parliament.

In this election, there are 56 females and 287 males contested the election under the D’Hondt proportional system and ethnic bloc voting was a glaring feature with Indo-Fijians supporting FijiFirst Partyy and iTaukei indigenous Fijians supporting the Peoples’ Alliance Party and the National Federation Party. Unity Fiji and the Fiji Labour Party polled less than 5 percent of the total votes.

With retired Major General Sitiveni Rabuka back at the helm, there is hope that the indigenous iTaukei population’s concerns on land and resources including rampant poverty and unemployment in their community will finally be addressed.  Indo-Fijians bloc voted for FFP following a concerted campaign of fear where the community was warned of further coups and bloodshed under PAP. However, Rabuka has reiterated that he will embrace all Fijians and ensure that he governs over a united country where fundamental freedoms are respected and enforced.

Contributing Author: Dr Sanjay Ramesh is a senior fellow in the Department of Social and  Political Science at the University of Sydney. He has written numerous articles on Fiji, neo-Gramscian politics, and semantic data models and has led many major projects in digital, data, and deliberative democracy in the Pacific. His interest is in data management, deliberative systems, and open, transparent, and accountable regimes in divided communities. (sanjay.ramesh@sydney.edu.au).

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