Fiji deploys military for ‘law and order’ as power hangs in balance after election

Fiji’s military will assist police in maintaining “security and stability” after last week’s election delivered a hung parliament, the country’s police commissioner has said – an alarming development in a country where there have been four military coups in the past 35 years.

The Pacific country is waiting for its president to recall parliament so lawmakers can vote for a new prime minister after a national election showed no party received a clear majority.

A coalition of three parties say they have a combined majority and have agreed on the People’s Alliance leader, Sitiveni Rabuka, as prime minister. Fiji First and the incumbent prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, have not conceded defeat.

Both men have led coups in the past.

Opposition parties have disputed reports – cited by police and Bainimara​ma as reason to bring in the military – that businesses or homes of Fiji’s large ethnic Indian population have been targeted or stoned in the wake of the election. The opposition groups have called for evidence of this.

At a media conference on Thursday, the National Federation party leader, Biman Prasad, said Fiji First’s secretary general, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, who was the attorney general in Bainimarama’s government, was “trying to create fear in the minds of people” and should accept the election result.

“He is not accepting they lost this election, people voted for change,” Prasad said.

The police commissioner, Sitiveni Qiliho, said a decision had been made to call in the military after he met with Bainimara​ma​ as well as the minister for defence and policing, Inia Seruiratu, and the military commander, Maj Gen Jone Kalouniwai.

“We came to an agreement for RFMF personnel to assist police with the maintenance of law and order, amidst growing concerns of racial tension,” a statement published on Thursday read.

Qiliho said the decision was based on reports received that “minority groups continue to be targeted and information of planned civil unrest received”.

The police commissioner also cited “threats made against minority groups who are now living in fear following recent political developments”.

“While the army and navy personnel have been called in to assist, police will continue to lead the overall security operations,” he added.

Bainimarama issued a statement saying the military had been deployed to complement the police in maintaining law and order. “The reports of harassment suffered by our citizens and violence targeted at Indo-Fijian homes and businesses in the wake of the election are deeply disturbing,” he said in a Facebook post.

Fiji’s president, Ratu Wiliame Katonivere, has until 2 January to summon parliament, media outlet Fiji Village reported, citing a letter sent by Katonivere to the coalition partners. The prime minister must be voted in by more than 50% of lawmakers on the parliament floor.

Bainimarama and Rabuka were initially deadlocked after the election. 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.

That left Sodelpa, which won three seats, holding the balance of power. The party decided on Tuesday in a close 16-14 internal vote to go with Rabuka – a vote that Fiji First is now questioning.

The Pacific island country, with a population of 900,000, had a history of military coups before constitutional reform in 2013 to remove a race-based voting system that favoured indigenous Fijians over ethnic Indians.

In 2006, Bainimarama instigated a coup and was installed as prime minister the year after, before leading Fiji First to majority government at the 2014 and 2018 democratic elections.

Rabuka is a former prime minister who instigated a coup in 1987 before bringing back democratic elections in 1992 and led the country through to 1999.

The Social Democratic Liberal Party (Sodelpa), a power-broker holding three seats in the hung parliament, supports policies favouring indigenous Fijians, and on Tuesday signed a coalition agreement with Rabuka’s People’s Alliance and the National Federation Party.

However Sodelpa’s board must meet again, after the validity of the decision to back the coalition was challenged by the party’s general secretary and Fiji’s supervisor of elections.

Sayed-Khaiyum, from the governing Fiji First party, lashed out at Rabuka, accusing him of sowing division in Fiji. “The entire rationale of this man has been to divide Fiji to gain political supremacy,” Sayed-Khaiyum said. “And we can see that simmering through again. In fact it’s not simmering, it’s boiling.”

A day earlier, Rabuka and two other party leaders announced they were forming a coalition with a total of 29 seats against Fiji First’s 26 and would form the next government.

“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.”

Rabuka’s announcement had prompted the New Zealand foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, to send her congratulations on Twitter, saying New Zealand “looks forward to working together to continue strengthening our warm relationship”.

But the New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, took a more cautious approach, saying she was waiting until the dust settled.

The Australian Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse and AP contributed to this report

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