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Is a new Fijian government on the horizon?

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Pre-polling observers work before the general election in Malake Island, Fiji, 7 December 2022 (PHOTO: Multinational Observer Group via REUTERS)

In Brief

As Fiji heads to its general election on 14 December 2022, the FijiFirst (FF) party led by 2006 coup leader and current Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama faces an uphill battle to secure a third term in power. The soaring cost of living, deteriorating infrastructure, a bungled COVID-19 response, controversy over political interference at the University of the South Pacific, and the recent conviction of well-known lawyer Richard Naidu for contempt of court have all contributed to Bainimarama’s unpopularity.


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FF begins from a leading position: at the 2018 election it won just over 50 per cent of votes and won 27 out of 51 seats. The Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA) won 39.9 per cent of the vote and 21 seats, and the National Federation Party won 7.4 per cent of the vote for a total of three seats. Turnout was almost 72 per cent, down from 84.6 per cent in 2014.

In 2014, FF harnessed what the late Fijian academic Brij V Lal described as ‘fear of revenge and retribution from Fijian nationalists’. An estimated 71 per cent of Indo-Fijians voted for FF. Bainimarama and FF continue to stoke this fear, but the political climate is very different today, with voters now primarily interested in economic wellbeing.

The Fiji Bureau of Statistics’ 2019–2020 Household Income and Expenditure Survey gives insight into how Fijians have fared under the FF government. Conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic, the survey estimated that 24.1 per cent of Fijians were living in poverty, with the majority below the age of 30. The economic recovery from the pandemic has been slow and the increased cost of living has meant those on the margins of poverty are struggling more than ever.

Frequent water cuts, power outages and potholes after heavy rain are prevalent nationwide despite millions of taxpayer dollars having been channelled into these areas. Ageing infrastructure and increased population growth have placed significant strain on the ability of the government to deliver efficient public services in places like Suva. The proportion of Fiji’s population living in urban areas rose from 50.7 per cent in 2007 to 55.9 per cent in 2017.

FF members of parliament have often touted their achievements in rebuilding Fiji and blamed previous governments for the country’s slow development. While this may be the case for many public infrastructure works, it is the case that since 2000 Bainimarama and FF have dominated government.

Parties contesting the 2022 election have expressed serious concern about the unknown extent of the economic damage done by the FF government. The undermining of the ability of the Office of the Auditor General to conduct periodical oversight of government spending has magnified these concerns.

These factors will be on the minds of voters as they head to the ballot box. If social media traffic is an indicator, many of those traditionally reluctant to express a party affiliation are now happy to do so, and with it a desire for change.

Enter 1987 coup leader and former prime minister, Sitiveni L Rabuka, who is expected to provide a formidable challenge to Bainimarama.

Rabuka was elected SODELPA leader in 2016 and became the opposition leader after the 2018 election. The increase in SODELPA’s seats at the 2018 polls highlighted that Rabuka’s leadership credentials still resonated among the party’s base of i-Taukei (indigenous Fijians). But internal tensions led to his resignation from parliament and from the party in December 2020.

In 2021, Rabuka formed the People’s Alliance. Since the election writ was issued, several SODELPA members have resigned to join him.

SODELPA leader Viliame Gavoka has described the former party leader as ‘an icon’ and a ‘giant in Fijian politics’. But memories of Rabuka’s involvement in the 1987 coup are a deterrent for some voters. Rabuka has actively reached out to Indo-Fijians locally and abroad in an effort to repair trust. A TikTok video with a young Indo-Fijian woman with a following of more than 80,000 people was circulated widely in an attempt to ‘soften’ his image.

While SODELPA is conservative, the People’s Alliance are further to the left and have attempted to project some moderation by forming a partnership with the National Federation Party. Whether this will translate into votes is unclear.

Nine political parties are registered to contest the 55 seats in the election. Anticipating that votes may be split, People’s Alliance and National Federation Party have a memorandum of understanding for a post-election coalition. Unity Fiji and SODELPA had also signed an memorandum of understanding, but it was terminated in November 2022.

There are three new parties contesting the election, but their support bases appear too narrow to attain seats.

The Fiji Labour Party is led by 80-year-old former prime minister Mahendra Chaudhry. The party has struggled to appeal outside its base. Like in 2018, it will struggle to reach the threshold to win any seats.

It has not been easy to govern during the COVID-19 pandemic. FF won by the slimmest of margins in 2018 and it will be a tall order for Bainimarama to win a third term. Fijian voters will soon decide his fate soon, with the final results to be announced by 18 December.

William Waqavakatoga is a PhD candidate in Politics and International Relations at the University of Adelaide. He is a former Teaching Assistant at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji.

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