Fiji is expecting a new leader to take office for the first time in 16 years after national elections resulted in three parties joining to form a coalition government to dislodge longtime Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama.
The Social Democratic Liberal Party, which holds three seats and became a powerbroker after elections returned a hung parliament, announced on Tuesday that it had decided to form a coalition with Sitiveni Rabuka’s People’s Alliance and the National Federation Party.
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The formation of the coalition came after days of deliberations and rival presentations by incumbent Bainimarama’s Fiji First party and Rabuka’s People’s Alliance party aimed at breaking the deadlock.
Television broadcaster FBC said the new coalition government would hold 29 seats in parliament, and the party of Bainimarama – who seized power through a 2006 coup and then legitimised his government with outright election wins in 2014 and 2018 – would hold 26 seats.
Fijians took to the streets of the capital Suva in celebration on Tuesday night, cheering ”the new PM” and setting off fireworks.
But parliament delayed its first sitting on Wednesday when it had been expected that Rabuka would be sworn in as prime minister. The constitution requires that legislators elect the prime minister from the parliament floor if no single party has won more than 50 percent of the seats required.
Parliament’s secretariat confirmed to the Reuters news agency in an email that the body did not sit because President Wiliame Katonivere has not yet issued a proclamation to hold the session.
In a statement on Wednesday, the police force called for calm and urged “all Fijians to respect the political process”.
Bainimarama has not spoken in public since casting his vote in the election last Wednesday. Although he has previously promised to respect the election result, Fiji has been upended by four coups in the past 35 years, so Fijians are awaiting Bainimarama’s response nervously.
His Fiji First party on Wednesday claimed a deal among opposition parties to form a government was illegitimate.
“Prime Minister Josaia Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama is still the prime minister, so get that right,” said Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, the party’s general-secretary and the attorney-general under Bainimarama’s administration.
“They are creating disquiet in the community, their motivation is not humble, their motivation is not trying to create stability,” Sayed-Khaiyum claimed.
He told a press conference that the coalition agreement was “legally immaterial”, and insisted parliament would have to vote to elect the prime minister.
The Pacific island nation, with a population of 900,000, had a history of military coups before constitutional reform in 2013 removed a race-based voting system that favoured Indigenous Fijians over a large Indian ethnic group.
Bainimarama has dominated Fiji’s politics for close to 20 years. While not an outright hardliner, his government has frequently used the legal system to sideline opponents, silence critics and muzzle the media.
Rabuka himself led two coups in 1987 as head of the military and then became prime minister before being removed at the polls in 1999.
Sayed-Khaiyum said the president could dissolve parliament, which must sit before January 2, and call a new election if the candidate for prime minister fails to win support from 50 percent of legislators after three attempts.
“Rabuka can’t be prime minister unless he gets elected on the floor of parliament,” he added.
While New Zealand’s foreign minister congratulated Rabuka on emerging victorious – even before Bainimarama had officially conceded – New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern offered a more measured response saying that Auckland would “wait” for the dust to settle on the election.
Congratulations to PA-NFP-SODELPA/ Sitiveni Rabuka on forming a coalition to lead the 🇫🇯 people. 🇳🇿 looks forward to working together to continue strengthening our warm relationship #duavata #mahitahi #kotahitanga
— Nanaia Mahuta (@NanaiaMahuta) December 20, 2022
“My understanding is there are a few extra things the (Fijian political) system will continue to go through,” Ardern told reporters.
“Let’s allow the process to run its course,” she said. “I have faith in Fiji’s ability to conduct the remaining stages of this process and stand ready to acknowledge their new leader.”