Kingmaker party votes again to form coalition, eject Fijian PM

Wellington: Fiji’s Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA) has voted for a second time in a week to form a coalition with two other parties to dislodge Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, signalling an end to the former military leader’s 16 years in power.

The country, which has a history of military coups, was dominated by sometimes tense race relations between its indigenous majority and a big ethnic Indian group, before a constitutional reform in 2013 removed a race-based voting system that favoured indigenous Fijians.

Prime Minister and FijiFirst Party leader Frank Bainimarama on his way to cast his vote on December 14 in Suva. He hasn’t yet conceded defeat.Credit:Getty Images

Bainimarama, who has yet to concede defeat, said on Thursday the military had been called in to assist police maintain law and order because of attacks on the Indian ethnic minority after a national election last week that showed no party received a clear majority.

Opposition parties accused Bainimarama and his allies of stoking fears of ethnic trouble as a pretext to cling to power.

A coalition of three parties including SODELPA said on Tuesday it had a combined majority and had agreed on the leader of the People’s Alliance, Sitiveni Rabuka, as prime minister. Bainimarama and Rabuka are both former coup leaders.

There was a heavy police presence outside the Southern Cross Hotel in the capital Suva, as the SODELPA board met on Friday to again vote on the matter.

Kingmaker Viliame Gavoka, leader of the Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA).Credit:Getty Images

Addressing media after the meeting ended, leader Viliame Gavoka said the party’s board had voted 13-12 in favour of forming a coalition with Rabuka’s party and the National Federation Party.

“We believe we have agreed on a way forward that benefits this country,” he said. “Democracy has won.”

A SODELPA official told reporters a new coalition agreement would be ready to sign on Wednesday.

Streets calm

Rabuka and Bainimarama had earlier led delegations to the hotel to make presentations to SODELPA, which emerged as a power-broker after winning three seats in the hung parliament.

It supports policies favouring indigenous Fijians, while Rabuka’s coalition partner, National Federation Party, has drawn support from the Indian community.

Board members entering the hotel’s gated compound had their names checked against a list. Military vehicles patrolled the hotel vicinity, although Army Commander Major General Jone Kalouniwai said police were still in control and the military would “respect whatever the outcome is”, Fiji Village reported.

People go about their business on the streets of Suva on December 22. The government put the army on standby on Thursday.Credit:Getty Images

Fiji has been pivotal to the strategically located region’s response to increasing competition for influence between China and the United States, and struck an agreement with Australia in October to work more closely with its military.

“We stand ready to work with whoever forms government in Fiji”, Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said on Friday. “Fiji will remain an important partner of Australia.”

Overnight, some Fijians had posted images of calm scenes and Christmas shopping to social media in protest at the decision to call in the military to assist policing.

Police commissioner Sitiveni Qiliho said on Friday morning that the police chief operations officer, Abdul Khan, who had been tasked with leading the joint military and police security operation a day earlier, had resigned for “personal reasons”.

President Wiliame Katonivere needs to recall parliament by January 2 so members can vote for a new prime minister, according to a letter sent by the president to the coalition partners cited by media outlet Fiji Village.


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