Fiji’s electoral crisis: when is a coup not a coup?
23 Dec 2022|

When is a coup not a coup? When it’s called a constitutional crisis. But make no mistake, there’s a coup attempt in progress in Fiji, even if its foot soldiers are in the bureaucracy and courts rather than the military.

The political history of this Pacific archipelago has been so regularly punctuated by the non-peaceful transfer of power that the term ‘coup culture’ has been created to explain the cancer that has corrupted Fijian democracy for decades.

Four recognised coups have occurred in Fiji since its independence in 1970. Three of them were staged by the Fijian military—April and September 1987, both led by Sitiveni Rabuka, and December 2006, led by Frank Bainimarama. The fourth, in May 2000, was a hybrid civilian–military coup led initially by George Speight.

Less well appreciated is that there was an earlier, non-violent coup in March 1977. It was labelled a constitutional crisis but was nonetheless a coup to prevent the peaceful transfer of power. Today, arguably, that event is serving as the template for a fresh attempt to hijack the electorate’s vote for change in government.

When the National Federation Party (NFP) won 26 of the 52 seats in the 1977 general election, it expected to form government with the support of an independent member of parliament. However, the governor-general, Ratu Sir George Cakobau, claimed to be unpersuaded that NFP leader Siddiq Koya could form a stable majority. He reappointed the defeated Alliance Party leader, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, as prime minister.

The Alliance Party moved a motion of confidence in Mara when parliament met to test his support. The motion was defeated and Cakobau dissolved the parliament and issued writs for new elections in September. The Alliance Party won handily after the NPF leadership broke into two factions—the flower and dove—that opposed each other in the election.

In 1977, the head of state had the key institutional role. The same is true now. Just as Cakobau declined to call on Koya to form a ministry quickly after the election, President Wiliame Katonivere has been slow to issue a proclamation to call the parliament into session.

His delay is constitutionality significant on two scores. The first is that the power of delay (up to 14 days after the return of the writs) gives the outgoing FijiFirst government time to destabilise or legally challenge the tripartite coalition—comprising the NFP, the People’s Alliance Party (PAP) and the Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA)—by questioning whether it actually can muster the numbers to govern or, indeed, by breaking up the capacity of the coalition to hold together.

The delay also plays into formal parliamentary processes. Since no party received more than 50% of the vote in this month’s general election, the constitution requires a vote in parliament to determine who the parliament will accept as prime minister. So long as the parliament isn’t called into session, that vote can’t be held. However, the fortnight window for the president to call the parliament into session is absolute.

The second element of the 1977 playbook was to foment and amplify divisions within the NFP to sustain the line that an NFP government would be incapable of guaranteeing supply. This white-anting is occurring both within SODELPA and through bureaucratic pressure.

SODELPA’s general-secretary, Lenaitasi Duru, resigned his post after claiming that the internal vote to join the PAP–NFP coalition was invalid due to unspecified anomies in the way it was conducted. Duru wrote to Katonivere to ask him not to call parliament into session as scheduled. He also approached the registrar of political parties, Mohammed Saneem.

Saneem responded by requiring the SODELPA management board to revisit the vote to join the PAP and NFP in forming the governing coalition. SODELPA’s vice president, Anare Jale, expressed a belief that the board would reconfirm its original decision. This reaffirmation has now been given, with the management board repeating its original decision.

Nonetheless, the delay caused by compelling the SODELPA board to recast the vote gave FijiFirst’s general-secretary and Fiji’s attorney-general, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, the opportunity to charge that Jale had failed to be completely honest with FijiFirst’s initial bid to SODELPA. The second pitch was allowed, but it didn’t change SODELPA’s decision.

The risk to the formation of a Rabuka-led government now shifts to the three elected SODELPA members and the possibility that they won’t honour the party’s pledges of support to the PAP–NFP coalition. That risk has become greater or, at least, less uncertain because of an ambiguity in constitutional language. Depending on how that ambiguity is resolved, there may be no way of enforcing the constitutional controls over parliamentary party members.

The 2013 constitution provides for an MP to be expelled from parliament for voting against the party’s direction when the ‘leader and the secretary of the political party’ notify the speaker of the parliament of the lapse. The precise definition of these officeholders isn’t clear, especially with regard to whether the party leader is the parliamentary leader or the machine wing leader.

It appears from media reports that SODELPA party leader Viliame Gavoka’s position became vacant under the party constitution, and Duru claims it will remain vacant until the party holds its annual general meeting in 2024. Now that Duru has resigned, it appears that SODELPA is without an official secretary, though that depends on when his resignation becomes effective (he has argued that it doesn’t take effect for 30 days).

The celebrators who believed that the way ahead for a new government was clear two days ago are now facing the reality that their expectations may be dashed on the rocks of political manipulation and obstruction.

Despite the best efforts of FijiFirst to frustrate the transfer of power, it can’t be certain that its efforts will succeed. Nor can it be certain that it will be the recipient of a stable majority if the tripartite coalition collapses. It might be satisfied with the fallback of a second election à la the 1977 crisis, but it can’t count on winning in a new poll.

The decision by Bainimarama’s allies in defence and national security to call on the Republic of Fiji Military Forces to assist the police with maintaining security and stability serves as a reminder that if 1977 proves not to be the right template to prevent a peaceful transfer of power, there are other models.