On Christmas Eve in 2006 Shamima Ali, then a human rights commissioner in Fiji, was getting phone calls about young women leaders being rounded up by the Fijian military and taken to the military camp. Just weeks prior, military commander Frank Bainimarama had successfully led a coup to overthrow Fiji’s government under the guise of promoting peace and multiculturalism.

Now 70, Ali is the coordinator of the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre. This Christmas Eve, she spent the holiday happy and relieved after a close parliamentary vote saw the swearing in of Sitiveni Rabuka as the nation’s new Prime Minister.

“It was touch and go but we are breathing the air of freedom,” Ali said.

Ali never thought she would support another former coup leader as prime minister. She remembers the fear in Fiji when Rabuka led the 1987 coups, which he said were motivated by a desire to protect the rights of Indigenous Fijians.

Since then, Rabuka has spent years apologizing for the 1987 coups and built a coalition that of parties that represent both the Indigenous Fijian community and the Indo-Fijian community.

Rabuka assumes leadership in Fiji as the Pacific country faces myriad challenges including multi-billion dollar debt and the lingering economic effects of coronavirus shutdowns.

Shamima Ali, who leads the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre, poses during her 70th birthday party Saturday. Courtesy: Semi Turaga/2023

Ali says she trusts many of the people working with Rabuka, and is confident the new government will bring more free speech and support for women’s rights. She said the militarization of the country over the past 16 years fueled more misogyny and less safety for Fijian women, as well as the disenfranchisement of Indigenous people.

“There’s a nexus between democracy and women’s rights,” she said.

She’s not alone. While Bainimarama has been praised for his climate change advocacy internationally, observers both in Fiji and abroad think Rabuka’s administration will be more sympathetic to civil liberties and Indigenous rights and potentially more welcoming to U.S. allies and interests in the Pacific region.

Ponipate Rokolekutu, an assistant professor in Critical Pacific Islands and Oceania Studies at San Francisco State University, believes the new administration will empower more Indigenous Fijians like himself who were afraid to speak out during the Bainimarama era.

“For 16 years under the Bainimarama government, Indigenous Fijian voices were suppressed,” he said.

Military Still Wields Pivotal Power

An early hurdle for Rabuka’s coalition government is the need to defy the historical odds to ensure the peaceful transition of power.

“Fiji has never had a democratic transition from government to opposition that has endured,” said Jon Fraenkel, professor of Comparative Politics at Victoria University of Wellington.

Ponipate Rokolekutu is an assistant professor at San Francisco State University and an Indigenous Fijian. Courtesy: San Francisco State University

Rabuka’s victory was not surprising given polls indicating falling support for Bainimarama and his party FijiFirst, Fraenkel said. But the Christmas Eve parliamentary vote for prime minister was narrower than some expected, and exposed fissures in the coalition of political parties — the People’s Alliance, National Federation Party and the Social Democratic Liberal Party —  that Rabuka cobbled together to secure victory.

“The first month of January is crucial,” Singh says.

Singh lives in Suva and said since the election, life has continued as normal in Fiji. Tourists are still coming in, but for locals there is an underlying anxiety over whether the administrative change will proceed smoothly.

In December, Fiji’s military leader pledged to respect the election’s outcome no matter what the result. Rokolekutu from San Francisco State University is hopeful that promise will hold.

“Democracy in Fiji is fragile,” Rokolekutu said. “Right now the political stability of Fiji really hinges on the military. It would not be far-fetched to say the military is really the power broker now.”

Campaign Promises

Singh noted that in Rabuka’s campaign for prime minister he promised to cut spending, forgive $500 million in student loans and release a backlog of funds to the University of the South Pacific.

Rokolekutu also anticipates there may be changes in how land rental payments are distributed to Indigenous Fijians and a reversal of Bainimarama’s efforts to lengthen land leases, both key issues for the Indigenous Fijian community.

Many supporters are hoping to see broader support for civil liberties including free speech and voting.

Sashi Kiran, a member of the National Federation Party who was recently appointed Assistant Minister for Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation in Rabuka’s government, said she was frustrated by the previous administration’s law preventing women from voting in elections unless their names matched the names on their birth certificate.

Sashi Kiran, middle, sits with Mereani Lomavere and Melaia Salacakau. Kiran is now Assistant Minister for Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation in the government of Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka. Courtesy: Sashi Kiran

Ali from the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre said that she felt the law deterred a lot of women from voting who had adopted their husband’s last names and didn’t have the time to wait in lines to update all their documents ahead of the election.

The free press also suffered under Bainimarama. A 2010 media law criminalized journalism deemed against “public interest or order” and had a chilling effect on Fiji news media. Singh says Rabuka has pledged to replace the act, although not necessarily repeal it, and its replacement is expected to be less draconian.

“A lot of the civil rights that were kind of constrained or denied by this government will be restored by the new government as per their campaign promise,” Singh says.

Bainimarama’s 16-year administration was marked by “endless harassment,” targeting members of Cabinet and political elites, according to Fraenkel.

Ali said that fear meant that any press releases, social media posts or speeches were carefully reviewed by attorneys to ensure they wouldn’t garner government attention.

“There was absolutely an urgent need that there has to be a change so that things can improve,” Kiran said.

Openness To China

The election of Rabuka could be a boon for the Biden administration, which has sought to strengthen American relations with Pacific island countries.

“In the years ahead, I look forward to continuing to strengthen the bonds between our people and advance our shared vision for a peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific,” Biden said, pointing to ongoing cooperation on climate change and illegal fishing.

China’s foreign ministry also congratulated Rabuka, saying it was ready to work with the new government on advancing bilateral relations.

Under Bainimarama, China’s aid to Fiji drastically increased and the countries established agreements on police cooperation and border control. In contrast, Rabuka is expected to be friendlier to traditional partners like Australia and New Zealand.

The Fiji coastline, August 2022.
Fiji plays a key role in trade and diplomacy in the Pacific. On Dec. 24, Sitiveni Rabuka was sworn in as its new prime minister. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

But in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Company last week, Rabuka also expressed an openness to continue partnering with China and called for other countries to treat Fiji as an equal partner.

“Australia and New Zealand and the United Kingdom and America have sort of seen us as outposts of their colonial regimes of the past and have not reorientated their thinking to the international landscape where we are all equal,” Rabuka said.

Fraenkel thinks Rabuka’s interview reflects a pragmatic approach toward China, despite his natural inclination to warm relations with Australia and New Zealand.

Rokolekutu says the direction set by Fiji — whether toward a democratic future or one that embraces particular international relationships — has ripple effects for its Pacific partners given Fiji’s role in trade and international diplomacy.

“Fiji is the hub of the Pacific,” said Rokolekutu. “When Fiji is courting the Chinese, the Chinese presence is not only felt in Fiji, it’s felt in the region.”

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