Contesting Coup Culture? Race and Rabuka in the 2018 Fijian Election

Ahead of the upcoming elections, ethnic tensions in Fiji continue to rise

Hayley Keen

Politics, Society and culture, Development | Pacific

13 April 2018

Fiji’s recent elections have become a manifestation of tensions brewing between the country’s local Fijian and Indian population. Hayley Keen writes.

Sitiveni Rabuka is a name that quickly polarises the people of Fiji. I mention his name to the taxi driver who is navigating the fertile backyard paths of Suva. Rabuka is the Leader of the Opposition whose company I have kept over the last couple of days. When we finally get into the city, the driver warns me as the door closes, “Be careful who you see here.”

That night, Rabuka shares his life story with a group, ‘humbly’ handing out a pamphlet about himself. “International sportsman, military hero, coup leader, prime minister and constitutional reformer, are all terms that refer to one of the most charismatic and dominant figures of Fijian life in the later years of the twentieth century,” it says.

Having executed a military coup in 1987 and decreeing the 1990 constitution, Rabuka led the SVT party to victory in 1992 and 1994. Now 69 years old, the decorated soldier and leader is eyeing off this year’s Fijian General Elections for his second stint as Prime Minster. However, given Rabuka history and the turbulent state of Fiji’s ethnic relations, he has quite a job on his hands.

The Fijian population consists of 56.8% Indigenous Fijian, who are also referred to as iTaukei, and 37.5% Indian. Throughout history, the iTaukei have seen their positions in many spheres being steadily eroded by the more competitive, individualistic and ambitious Indians. In the lead up to the 1987 coup, Indians dominated commerce, the professions and the lucrative sugar industry.

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The iTaukei clung to their land and culture as protection against domination and loss of identity. Even then, Indians owned the lion’s share of prime fertile land and continued to pose a challenge to the authority of Fiji’s cultural cornerstone – the chief system. The two 1987 coups that Rabuka led was primarily to reinstate ethnic Fijians to the top job.

The ideology of SODELPA, Rabuka’s party, centres on ethnic nationalism. But, Rabuka admits SODELPA is threatened by new parties joining what is a very undecided race. SODELPA plans to contest the elections alone – like they did in 2014, where they gained only one quarter of the votes and seats. And although contesting elections is surely better than conducting coups, there are questions to be raised about the wisdom of putting a former coup leader in charge of a party that says it wants to return Fiji to a full democracy.

Rabuka seeking ‘justice’ emphasises that he shares similar concerns to Fiji’s highest ranking traditional chief, Ratu Cakobau. “Instead of gradual change there has been rapid change,” he said. “Many of the changes have not come in the past 90 years, but in the past 20 years, and most of them in the last decade. In particular they have caught the Fijian (Taukei) people economically, educationally and politically unprepared.”

On the other hand, Rabuka promised that during his previous terms in office, and going into the future, he would abate that concern by embracing the ideas of Ratu Mara. Ratu Mara is considered the father of modern Fiji, and the pioneer of multiracial political representation. His idea is that Fiji must “find a common path towards unity, a unity that transcends race and religion and recognises that we are all sons and daughters of Fiji.”

On the surface, marrying these two ideologies seems like the most reasonable thing for any politician to do; to pursue sustainable cultural change and multiracial unity. However, in Fiji, history has proven it seemingly impossible. Both groups want to run the country. The Fijians want to maintain their current political priority, and the Indians want to take control.

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In such an environment, there is little possibility that either will permit themselves to be pushed aside – as demonstrated in the coup of 2000, the political crisis of 2005, the coup of 2006, and most recently, the constitutional crisis of 2009. The nine years since have allowed tensions to simmer.

There have been persistent calls from the pacifists of Fiji to return to Mara’s commitment to multi-racialism as the only way for the country to prosper. Although multiracialism in Fiji is viewed as a positive concept; it seems to be so only if practised on each race’s terms. Fijian voters welcome Indian-Fijians, but say the power must remain in the hands of the Fijians. Indo-Fijians talk warmly about Fijians, but simultaneously express extreme distrust regarding their competence in running the country. It becomes more evident with every passing political era that for Fiji to embrace multiracialism entirely is not going to be easy.

The Aussie Ex-Pat, now Fijian mother to many, whom we’re living with, said there was a noticeable difference in the political mood leading up to the election, as Fijian-Indians begin to fill the top jobs yet again. “In a lot of ways they work harder than the iTaukei, that’s not a bad reflection on the iTaukei, it’s just a different way of life.”

The community recalls two Rabukas; one who calls on Cabinet to include Indian-Fijians, to avoid making them feel marginalised. The other, who frequently affirms that no Indian-Fijian should ever lead Fiji. Only time will tell if Rabuka’s spell from politics has imbued him with a new wisdom to try again to deal with this complex tapestry of racial tension. Only the ballot box will tell if he has been able to convince Fijians that Ratu Mara would be happy with their choice.

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