Sitiveni Rabuka has won a close election in Fiji and is promising change as the South Pacific nation’s first new leader in 16 years.
His win came after three political parties announced late Tuesday they would form a coalition. That followed days of negotiations after last week’s election.
Rabuka’s victory brings to an end the long reign of Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, who seized power in a 2006 military coup and later refashioned himself as a democratic leader by introducing a new constitution and winning elections in 2014 and again in 2018.
Rabuka is also a former coup leader. He led Fiji’s first military takeover in 1987 and later served seven years as an elected prime minister in the 1990s.
Bainimarama and Rabuka had been deadlocked at 26 seats apiece after last week’s election. The small Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA) held the remaining three seats and the balance of power, and decided late Tuesday in a close vote of its own to go with Rabuka.
Rabuka’s People’s Alliance Party won 21 seats and the affiliated National Federation Party won five seats, while Bainimarama’s Fiji First party secured 26 seats.
SODELPA had said Indigenous affairs and education were among their top priorities in the negotiations, although they didn’t immediately announce what concessions they’d been able to extract from Rabuka.
Rabuka thanked the Social Democrats for “giving us the honor” of forming the next government of Fiji.
“A government we hope that will bring the change that people had been calling out for over the last few years,” Rabuka said at a news conference. “It’s going to be an onerous task. It will not be easy, and it was never easy to try and dislodge an incumbent government. We have done that, collectively.”
In the days after the election, when the vote appeared to be going against Rabuka and there had been a glitch in the app that people used to follow the vote count, Rabuka had said he had no faith in the integrity of election officials and called for a nationwide petition.
But on Tuesday night, he said that although his party had experienced some difficulties with elections officials at the beginning, it now wanted to thank them.
“They had expected opposition and complaint from us, and they got it,” Rabuka said. “But now that it’s all over, I’m sure we can all turn our back on that, work together, form a government, and tell the people of Fiji they can have a very merry Christmas.”
Fiji is known abroad as a tourist paradise dotted with pristine beaches and filled with friendly, relaxed people.
However, the past few years have proved tough for many in the nation of just under 1 million, after tourism evaporated when COVID-19 hit and the economy tanked. The World Bank estimates the nation’s poverty rate is about 24 percent.