Sitiveni Rabuka has become Fiji’s 12th prime minister, ending a tense political stalemate that had gripped the small Pacific island nation in the days following an undecisive election outcome this month.
The Fijian Parliament in the capital Suva convened on Saturday to vote in Rabuka, who is now holding the prime minister’s job for a second time. The 74-year-old said he felt “humbled” as he made his way out of parliament after winning the nomination over incumbent Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama.
The two-time coup leader and former prime minister, Rabuka — still referred to by his nickname “Rambo” — narrowly triumphed over Bainimarama by 28 votes to 27 in a secret ballot, Parliamentary Speaker Naiqama Lalabalavu announced.
Bainimarama later thanked his Fiji First party and supporters, saying “this is democracy and this is my legacy”, adding that he hoped to continue in government as leader of the opposition.
— Kelvin Anthony (@kelvinfiji) December 24, 2022
Rabuka, the head of the People’s Alliance Party (PAP), won the nomination after forming a majority coalition with two other smaller parties following last week’s close and contentious election result. He locked in the coalition deal to form a government on Friday afternoon, after successfully wooing the kingmaker Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA).
SODELPA had earlier chosen Rabuka’s PAP over Bainimarama’s Fiji First, but that initial vote was ruled invalid by the country’s election supervisor, and Bainimarama’s Fiji First refused to concede the election.
Rabuka is scheduled to be officially sworn in later on Saturday at Government House.
A chorus of cars honked in celebration as they drove past the parliamentary building after the vote.
The European Union ambassador for the Pacific, Sujiro Seam, tweeted his congratulations to Rabuka shortly after the announcement.
On behalf of @EUPasifika, congratulations to @slrabuka, elected Prime Minister of #Fiji, @RatuLalabalavu, elected Speaker of @fijiparliament and @lenoraqfj, elected Deputy Speaker of @fijiparliament! https://t.co/WvJ8DBwbmw
— Sujiro Seam 🇪🇺 (@sujiseam) December 24, 2022
The military had been deployed on the streets of Suva as Rabuka and Bainimarama this week raced to cobble together a coalition government following the deadlocked general election.
Citing unsubstantiated reports of ethnic violence, Bainimarama said the military was needed to maintain “law and order”. But Rabuka — who served as prime minister between 1992 and 1999 — said the government was “sowing fear and chaos” and “trying to set the nation alight along racial lines”.
It had been a tense week in Fiji, where democracy remains fragile. There have been four military coups in Fiji over the past 35 years, and both Rabuka and Bainimarama have held lead roles in previous moves to remove former Fijian leaders.
Rabuka instigated two coups in 1987, and Bainimarama seized power through a 2006 putsch and then legitimised his government with outright election wins in 2014 and 2018.
While not an outright autocrat, Bainimarama’s government had frequently used the legal system to sideline opponents, silence critics and muzzle the media.
Rabuka — who represented his country in rugby union and athletics — commanded two infantry battalions on peacekeeping duties in Lebanon and in the Sinai Desert, Egypt. He was awarded the French Légion d’honneur for bravery in saving a French officer during an attack on the UN headquarters in Lebanon in 1980.
He made his first mark in politics when he emerged from relative obscurity to stage his first military coup in 1987, arguing that Indigenous Fijians were losing control of their nation to the descendants of ethnic Indians. He went on to instigate another coup in the same year to depose the leadership he had just installed. He later handed power to an interim administration, but remained commander of the army and minister of home affairs. Rabuka contested in the next election in 1992 and was democratically elected as prime minister, serving until 1999.