Sitiveni Rabuka has become Fiji’s 12th prime minister, ending a tense political stalemate that gripped the small island nation in the Pacific in the days following an undecided election result this month.
The Fijian parliament in the capital Suva met on Saturday to vote in Rabuka, who is now prime minister for the second time. The 74-year-old said he felt “humbled” as he left Parliament after winning the nomination against incumbent Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama.
The two-time coup leader and former Prime Minister Rabuka — still referred to by his nickname “Rambo” — triumphed over Bainimarama in a secret ballot by just 28 votes to 27, as parliamentary speaker Naiqama Lalabalavu said.
Bainimarama later thanked his Fiji First party and supporters and said “that is democracy and that is my legacy.” He added that he hoped to remain in government as opposition leader.
Breaking — Frank Bainimarama thanks FijiFirst supporters and says: “That is democracy and that is my legacy. The Constitution of 2013.” #FijiPol pic.twitter.com/irlmTdhirv
— Kelvin Anthony (@kelvinfiji) December 24, 2022
Rabuka, leader 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 disputed election results. He concluded the coalition agreement to form a government on Friday afternoon after successfully courting the kingmaker Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA).
SODELPA had previously preferred Rabuka’s PAP over Bainimarama’s Fiji First, but this original vote was declared invalid by the country’s electoral authority, and Bainimarama’s Fiji First refused to admit the election.
Rabuka is due to be officially sworn in at Government House later on Saturday.
A chorus of cars honked solemnly as they drove past the parliament building after the vote.
European Union Ambassador for the Pacific Sujiro Seam congratulated Rabuka on Twitter shortly after the announcement.
On behalf of @EUPasifika, congratulations to @slrabuka, who was elected prime minister of #Fiji, @RatuLalabalavu, as spokesperson for @fijiparliament and @lenoraqfj, elected as deputy spokesperson for @fijiparliament!
— Sujiro Seam 🇪🇺 (@sujiseam) December 24, 2022
The military had been deployed on the streets of Suva as Rabuka and Bainimarama fought to put together a coalition government this week following the deadlocked parliamentary elections.
Citing baseless reports of ethnic violence, Bainimarama said the military was necessary to maintain “law and order.” However, Rabuka, who was prime minister between 1992 and 1999, said the government was sowing “fear and chaos” and was “trying to set fire to the nation along racial lines.”
It was a tense week in Fiji, in which democracy remains fragile. There have been four military coups in Fiji in the last 35 years, and both Rabuka and Bainimarama played leading roles in earlier measures to remove former Fijian leaders.
Rabuka instigated two coups in 1987, and Bainimarama seized power in a coup in 2006 and then legitimized his government with direct election victories in 2014 and 2018.
Although the Bainimarama government was not a genuine autocrat, it often 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 responsible for peacekeeping operations in Lebanon and in the Sinai Desert in Egypt. He was awarded the French Legion of Honor for his bravery in saving a French officer during an attack on UN headquarters in Lebanon in 1980.
He left his first mark on politics when he emerged from relative obscurity in 1987 to stage his first military coup. He argued that the indigenous Fijians would lose control of their nation to the descendants of ethnic Indians. In the same year, he initiated another coup d’état to remove the leadership he had just installed. He later handed over power to a transitional government, but remained army commander and minister of the interior. Rabuka took part in the next elections in 1992 and was democratically elected prime minister. He was in office until 1999.