The changing shape of Fiji’s new political order since its December national elections has taken a dramatic turn. On February 17, Fiji’s parliament suspended former prime minister, and now leader of the opposition, Josaia Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama, for three years. This latest development in Fiji’s fast-moving political landscape raises numerous questions and requires reflection on the causes and consequences of this political maneuver.
Fiji’s turbulent political landscape had been dominated by Bainimarama for the past 17 years. In December 2006, Bainimarama came to power when he led a military coup as the Royal Fijian Military Force (RFMF) commander. He ruled Fiji as a dictatorship until reverting to democratic governance in 2014. In the first two elections (2014 and 2018), Bainimarama retained power, although with a reduced majority in 2018.
The December 14, 2022, election produced a complicated political outcome. Bainimarama’s Fiji First Party won 26 seats in the 55-seat parliament. In order to secure a majority, Sitiveni Rabuka’s People’s Alliance Party, which won 21 seats, formed an alliance with the National Federation Party and the SODELPA Party, which won five and three seats respectively. On December 24, the parliament voted on who would be the next prime minister. Rabuka won by one vote, meaning someone in the coalition voted against him. Rabuka was immediately sworn in as prime minister, a position he last held in 1999.
Despite only having won by the slimmest of margins and with the “People’s Coalition Government,” as Rabuka’s government calls itself, being delicately held together despite long histories of personal and political animus, the new government wasted no time in systematically dismantling Bainimarama’s extensive power base. Multiple key public service appointments made by Bainimarama’s government were overturned in rapid succession (“resign or be removed” was the ultimatum issued by the new government), and investigations were launched into leading figures of Bainimarama’s government, including his former deputy who effectively ruled Fiji with him for 16 years, Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum. Sayed Khaiyum’s place in the new parliament was also jeopardized when he violated constitutional rules of his own making.
The pace of the political reckoning in the first two weeks of 2023 prompted the commander of the RFMF, Major General Jone Kalouniwai, to issue a troubling statement. Kalouniwai reminded the new government of the RFMF’s constitutional obligation to ensure the “well-being” of all Fijians. Kalouniwai was rebuked, and although he publicly demonstrated loyalty to the new government, his comment still shadows events given Fiji’s history of coups (there have been four coups since 1987). However, what has transpired since indicates that Kalouniwai has decided not to go down that disastrous route.
Kalouniwai’s muscle flexing did not slow the political ax. Sayed Khaiyum struck a defiant tone as he lambasted the new government in an attempt to retain his position, but with little success. On February 1, the slew of investigations ensnared the former prime minister himself. On February 3, Sayed Khaiyum announced he was leaving parliament.
In one month, the apparatus Bainimarama had forged to ensure his ongoing power was largely history. Then on February 13, Bainimarama made remarks in parliament during discussions about a speech by the Fijian president. Deputy Prime Minister Pio Tikoduadua alleged that Bainimarama used words that were “denigrating and humiliating to our Head of State, [His Excellency] the President …while appealing to the rank and file in the RFMF.” The allegation was referred to the Privileges Committee, which found Bainimarama had breached privilege.
The resulting three-year suspension is harsh. Bainimarama is now not allowed to engage with the parliament he presided over for 16 years with unchecked power until February 17, 2026.
What has been playing out in Fiji will sound familiar to those paying attention to the region. A very similar political strategy has been unfolding in neighboring Samoa. There, the nation’s political colossus who ruled the nation as virtually a one-party state for 23 years, Tuila’epa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi, was also suspended from parliament in 2022 for two years. The reason for this stemmed from Samoa’s four-month-long constitutional crisis following its April 2021 election.
In order to retain power, Tuilaepa engaged in an array of tactics to prevent now-Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa’s Fa’atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (FAST) Party from taking over the reins of power when they won the election by one seat. The crisis pivoted on a number of issues (like the number of seats allocated to women in the parliament) and involved dramatic power struggles between the courts and the office of the head of state. The dramatic post-election wrangling finally ended when Samoa’s Supreme Court decided in favor of FAST. Tuilaepa resigned himself to be the leader of the opposition in August 2021 and Fiame was sworn in as the first woman to lead Samoa.
In the course of the four months of constitutional crisis Tuilaepa made, in his characteristic way, incendiary public comments attacking the integrity of the court (and just about every other individual and entity not siding with him). Those comments led to contempt of court charges and then contempt of parliament charges for which he was convicted. These convictions imperiled his position in parliament, and he was suspended. Tuilaepa challenged the decision, which was reversed by the Supreme Court on the grounds that he had not been properly heard in parliament, but the panel of judges found no fault with the suspension itself. Tuilaepa returned to parliament and was heard, and then the parliament suspended him again in October 2022 for two years with all legal avenues for appeal exhausted.
Six months later, Bainimarama finds himself in a similar predicament.
Samoa and Fiji have both faced different challenges with retaining democratic systems (with many nations around the world, not least the United States, also being tested in this regard). Suspension of members of parliament for lengthy terms is new terrain in this history. Ironically, it involves two men who arguably have done more than anyone to undermine democracy in their respective nations. But questions remain. What becomes of the political voice of their constituents in this scenario? Is this a weaponizing of parliamentary procedure to remove duly elected members who pose threats to new governments because they have a slim parliamentary minority? Does the need for stable and effective governments in both Samoa and Fiji focused on the business of improving citizens’ lives, rather than being preoccupied with political intrigue, justify the means?
These are questions that will be asked as both nations navigate futures with these two men sidelined from the political fray. For Bainimarama, it currently appears that the only path to regaining power would be through fomenting a military coup, as he did in 2006. At present, it appears the RFMF is not willing to support him. With no military, such a scenario does not apply in Samoa.
For now, what is clear is that both Samoa and Fiji are now being governed by two leaders – Fiame and Rabuka, who met in Suva on February 23 – who have augmented their power via legal processes and deftly outplayed two giants of the Pacific’s political landscape.