27 Jun 2016

Rabuka's political nous seen as plus for Fiji's SODELPA

3:29 pm on 27 June 2016
The leader of Fiji's opposition SODELPA party, Sitiveni Rabuka.

The newly-appointed leader of Fiji's opposition SODELPA party, Sitiveni Rabuka. Photo: AFP

Sitiveni Rabuka has the political nous to put up a good challenge to Fiji's prime minister Frank Bainimarama at the next election, according to a Fijian academic.

Steven Ratuva, who is the director of the MacMillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies at New Zealand's Canterbury University, said the newly elected leader of Fiji's main opposition party has evolved from a coup leader into a very smart politican.

Mr Rabuka, as a colonel in Fiji's military, led the 1987 coup and later served as prime minister from 1992 to 1999.

On Friday the SODELPA party elected him to lead the party in the run up to the next election in 2018.

Professor Ratuva said if the party wanted a chance in 2018 it would have to look at its strategies.

"Rabuka has the experience and also has the mindset to be able to do that and to counter Bainimarama," said Professor Ratuva.

"Remember these are both former military officers and they are able to read each other's mind and they would strategise in relation to what the other is doing. So it will be a very interesting tussle between them."

SODELPA rose out of the ashes of the SDL party led by Laisenia Qarase who was ousted in a coup led by Frank Bainimarama in 2006.

Professor Ratuva said Mr Rabuka's past as the 1987 coup leader still haunts him but it could be seen as both a strength and a weakness as he takes on the reigns of SODELPA.

"One can argue that perhaps SODELPA has lost the moral high ground but you know at the end of the day almost every politician has been tainted in some way either by the 1987 coup, the 2000 coup, the 2006 coup and I don't think anyone is actually clean."

Professor Ratuva said a lot of people in the community, within civil society, were ready to move on from the continuous tension in Fiji and accepting Mr Rabuka's apologies, of which there have been many, could be a reconciliation of sorts for the country.

Professor Ratuva said Mr Rabuka might also be able to generate support from other ethnic groups and forge an alliance with the National Federation Party, like he did in 1999, which would ring alarm bells for Mr Bainimarama's FijiFirst.

"His own political position has changed from i-Taukeism to multi-racialism and in 1999 when he stood for the election that was his platform, so in a way in terms of their poltical and ethnic positions, he's really no different from Bainimarama now. They both believe in mutli-racialism and they both believe in bringing all the ethnic groups together."

In the 2014 election, FijiFirst's backing came in large part from indo-Fijians and a split indigenous vote.

"That's one of the weaknesses of SODELPA in the last election. They were not able to go across the ethnic divide and generate votes from the other ethnic votes. Most of their votes were from i-Taukei," said Professor Ratuva.

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs