Tears of joy as opposition reach deal to unseat veteran Fiji PM

Former rugby international and coup leader-turned-democrat Sitiveni "Rambo" Rabuka, is set to be the country's next Prime Minister

December 20, 2022 09:10 pm | Updated 09:10 pm IST - Suva:

Former rugby international and coup leader-turned-democrat Sitiveni “Rambo” Rabuka, is set to be the country’s next Prime Minister

Former rugby international and coup leader-turned-democrat Sitiveni “Rambo” Rabuka, is set to be the country’s next Prime Minister | Photo Credit: AP

Ecstatic Fijians poured onto the streets to celebrate the end of Frank Bainimarama's 16-year rule, after election opponents reached a deal on Tuesday to form a coalition government.

Former rugby international and coup leader-turned-democrat Sitiveni "Rambo" Rabuka, is set to be the country's next Prime Minister, after securing the support of a minor party and enough seats for a parliamentary majority.

"I would like to thank and congratulate the people of Fiji," Mr. Rabuka said, claiming victory after Wednesday's contentious election. "They have voted for change."

Mr. Rabuka and his coalition allies have vowed to renew Fiji's democracy and introduce a "more caring, compassionate" and accountable government after what they see as a decade and a half of semi-authoritarian rule.

"It's been too long", said 21-year-old politics student Vilivo Amo, who was one of thousands on the streets of Suva. "They are bringing democracy back."

"This current government, people get taken to task for no reason, they get trouble from the police. That will change."

Mr. Bainimarama, a former naval commander, came to power in a 2006 coup but later won two elections to legitimise his hold on power.

He has dominated Fiji's politics and while not an outright autocrat, his government has frequently used the legal system to sideline opponents, silence critics and muzzle the media.

As news of the coalition deal trickled out, euphoric and tearful supporters outside Rabuka's headquarters erupted into song.

Fireworks exploded, car horns blared and supporters danced, brandishing traffic cones, flags and placards.

Some chanted "New government!" in Fijian, while members of the administration-elect sang the U.S. civil rights hymn "We shall overcome".

Mr. Rabuka’s supporter Elijah Rokoderea expressed relief to see Bainimarama lose power.

"I feel like breaking open the ceiling and celebrating man," he told AFP. "It's been 16 years of this oppressive government. You can't even organise a protest."

Security guard Mitele Tuqiri said he was ecstatic.

"We are going to celebrate tonight, and then tomorrow it will continue."

Mr. Bainimarama has not spoken in public since casting his vote last Wednesday.

He has vowed to respect the outcome of the election, but many Fijians will wait anxiously to see his response.

Fiji has been upended by four coups in the past 35 years, and the possibility of military intervention loomed over this year's vote.

During the election count, Rabuka wrote to the country's military commander to step in, after questioning early voting results that were delayed by technical "anomalies" and an app glitch.

That request was rebuffed, but before the count was complete he was summoned by police for questioning, before being released.

The vote ended in deadlock, with both frontrunners two seats short of a parliamentary majority and forced to court a minor party to secure power.

After days of horsetrading, the small Social Democratic Liberal Party said Tuesday that its executive had voted 16-14 in favour of joining Rabuka's broad coalition.

The result also has regional significance, with both Rabuka and his new coalition allies having signalled a desire to cool relations with China.

In his victory speech, Mr. Rabuka issued a conciliatory message to his long-time rival Bainimarama.

"I would like to thank the outgoing Fiji First party. I hope they will accept the result."

The Social Democratic Liberal Party and their devout Christian leader Viliame Gavoka demanded key ministerial posts in any new government and for Fiji to establish an embassy in Jerusalem.

According to a copy of the agreement obtained by AFP, the government will establish a "diplomatic mission in Israel", review the constitution and address a series of issues that are key for Indigenous Fijians.

Mr. Bainimarama has traditionally enjoyed widespread support among Fiji's large Indo-Fijian population.

The Social Democratic Liberal Party will get three ministerial portfolios – education, tourism and indigenous affairs, according to the agreement.

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