SUVA: Fiji’s tumultuous general election ended in a cliffhanger today, with two rival ex-coup leaders failing to win a clear majority and needing to woo a kingmaking minor party to secure power.
Incumbent prime minister Frank Bainimarama’s Fiji First party and an opposition coalition led by Sitiveni Rabuka were both projected to secure 26 seats in the 55-seat legislature, according to a Fijian election office tally.
Fiji has been upended by four coups in the past 35 years, and many on the streets of its capital, Suva, had hoped in vain for a smooth election.
Instead, in a vote beset by delays and technical glitches, the opposition leader was summoned for police questioning and the threat of military intervention was never far from mind.
The prime minister and the next government will now likely be determined through party horse-trading in a negotiating process that could take up to two weeks.
The opposition – after alleging counting irregularities and appealing for the military to step in – emerged ahead in the popular vote and with their greatest opportunity yet to end Bainimarama’s 16 years in power.
Rabuka, a veteran opposition leader and ex-rugby international nicknamed “Rambo”, stopped short of claiming victory, but sounded like a man who had won against the odds.
“For those who follow, the generations to come, they will look back at the election and say that was the turning point in Fiji’s journey,” he told supporters.
“Together we will discover the heart of this great nation of ours.”
He expressed confidence his coalition could reach a power-securing deal with the Social Democratic party and its deeply devout leader Viliame Gavoka, who are projected to hold three vital seats.
“From all indications, I can sense that we have harmony in our policies more than they have with the Fiji First party,” Rabuka told reporters after leading a packed church service through a series of Fijian hymns.
The election outcome holds significance beyond Fiji – Bainimarama, 68, has been close with Beijing, while Rabuka, 74, has signalled his desire to loosen Fiji’s ties to China.
Gavoka gave little away today, but did suggest he was not in favour of a stronger relationship with China.
“I know Solomon Islands have gone out and done this security thing with the Chinese,” he told reporters.
“We won’t do that. We will go with our traditional partners Australia and New Zealand.”
Solomon Islands signed a security pact with Beijing this year – a move that sparked fears over Chinese military presence in the region.
Gavoka, who is staunchly religious, also ruled out changing Fiji’s constitution to make it a Christian country.
The former Fiji rugby union chairman was arrested in 2010 for sending tourism operators emails about a Fijian pastor falsely prophesying an impending tsunami.
After dominating Fijian politics for close to two decades, Bainimarama has not spoken publicly since election day.
Flanked by his granddaughter, he cut off a reporter’s question about respecting the outcome of the poll, before saying he would.
For Rabuka it has been a rollercoaster week.
Fiji’s polls ran into trouble early Thursday morning when what election officials called a technical “anomaly” knocked results offline for four hours.
Rabuka called for counting to be stopped and said the “anomalies” left him with no faith in the process.
He wrote to the commander of the Fijian armed forces, major-general Jone Kalouniwai, asking him to step in.
That request was rejected, and Rabuka was then hauled in for questioning by detectives.
International observers said they had witnessed no significant irregularities on election day.
On his release, Rabuka told AFP it was part of a government effort to intimidate him. “The way this government has operated, we’ve been talking about a climate of fear. This is how they instil that fear,” he said.