3 Dec 2020

Fiji's Social Democratic Liberal Party leader Viliame Gavoka's focus ahead of 2022 election

10:53 am on 3 December 2020

The new leader of Fiji's Social Democratic Liberal Party has laid down the challenge to his colleagues.

Viliame Gavoka and Filimoni Vosarogo.

Viliame Gavoka and Filimoni Vosarogo. Photo: Facebook/SODELPA

Viliame Gavoka was last weekend appointed to head the party (SODELPA) - Fiji's main opposition party - with lawyer Filimoni Vosarogo as his deputy.

Gavoka replaced former prime minister Sitiveni Rabuka as leader while Vosarogo pipped whip Lynda Tabuya by one vote.

Other applicants for party leader included Ro Filipe Tuisawau, Aseri Radrodro, the late Pio Tabaiwalu - who died during the appointment process - and Ratu Jone Navakamocea.

Radrodro and Tabaiwalu also applied to be deputy leader alongside Mosese Bulitavu and Niko Nawaikula.

Gavoka said SODELPA still needed Rabuka to claim victory at the 2022 polls.

"He has indicated he will stay and of course we need heavy hitters in SODELPA," Gavoka said.

"We met prior to the opening of Parliament and we met afterwards.

"I'm honoured that I have him on my side. When you're marching to victory, you need the firepower and he brings that firepower.

"We need him on our side. Rabuka is an icon, he is a giant in Fijian politics and he is going to be with us in 2022."

Constitutional rules mean Gavoka cannot formally replace Rabuka this term, but he will essentially run the party outside Parliament while Rabuka remains as the official leader.

"I'll look after the party nationally and (Rabuka) looks after Parliament. So we complement each other."

Despite a heated debate at last weekend's AGM, in the end those present agreed the way forward for the party was through unity, Gavoka said.

Who is Viliame Gavoka?

Viliame Rogoibulu Gavoka is a member of Parliament representing the Nadroga Constituency.

Bill, as he is commonly called, was born in 1950 and studied at the all-boys Ratu Kadavulevu School in Tailevu. He later studied at the University of the South Pacific.

Gavoka was a leading figure in the country's tourism sector with over 30 years in the industry. He was appointed chair of the Fiji Visitors Bureau - now Tourism Fiji - but was removed from the post in 2009 by the Frank Bainimarama-led government.

In May that year, he was appointed chair of the Fiji Rugby Union. However, his alleged involvement in the nearly $US500,000 lottery scandal at FRU led to him being sacked for the second time as a chairman. His latest dismissal came about after the Commerce Commission found that the lottery had been improperly run.

In June 2010, he "prophesied" that a natural disaster would hit Fiji on 23 June at 2.30pm local time. He was one of two people charged for spreading rumours. The other was a pastor.

Gavoka joined the Fiji Holding Limited board as a director soon after. In July 2014, he resigned from the FHL board to join SODELPA for the general elections later that year.

Gavoka was elected an MP with 3690 votes and was re-elected at the 2018 polls, winning 3536 votes.

The SODELPA leader has since dismissed claims he would be ineffective in the role because of his relationship with Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum.

His daughter, Ela married Sayed-Khaiyum in 2015.

"Family is family and politics is politics," Gavoka said.

"My son-in-law is the attorney-general and we may have different political views.

"While the ruling FijiFirst and SODELPA both believe in a prosperous and peaceful Fiji, we at SODELPA believe our pathway to achieving that is better than the government's.

"I also have three beautiful grandchildren and I spend more time with them than talking about politics."

Viliame Gavoka with daughter Ela and son-in-law Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum.

Viliame Gavoka with daughter Ela and son-in-law Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum. Photo: Facebook/SODELPA

Leader lays down the challenge

SODELPA has 21 seats in parliament but in order to govern, the party will need a further six seats.

Gavoka had a message for party members and the 28 constituencies.

"I need all sitting MPs to work to ensure they retain their seats in 2022," he said. "This gives us all the more reason to be on the alert, to work hard."

But first, Gavoka has to resolve the issues plaguing the party.

SODELPA has been rocked with months of tensions which split the party in April.

The party was suspended by the Elections Office for breach of political rules and its constitution. The suspension was lifted 35 days later but the factions remain.

There was no place in SODELPA for personalities and factions, Gavoka said.

"My message to everyone in SODELPA is to get away from personalities and factions and focus on issues," he said.

"We should be an issues-driven party because the people are asking what do we stand for? What are you guys going to do?

"Well, I am going to change the narrative."

Gavoka outlined three key issues: Economic enhancement of the iTaukei people, free education, and upgrading the health system.

The indigenous people of the country were "a huge part of our base and are way behind everybody else and this needs to change", he said.

Every Fijian should be entitled to free education up to tertiary level, he said.

"This country needs a lot of educated people. (It is) better when you have an educated populace and citizenry.

"It's like how they do it in Sri Lanka, and Fiji can afford it as we have done our sums."

There was a need to upgrade and improve the health system in Fiji, Gavoka said.

With the Covid-19 pandemic, hygiene and health would be paramount for travellers considering a holiday destination, Gavoka said.

"And Fiji being reliant on tourism, we need to up our act on our health system," he said.

"We need to get on par with some of the developed countries.

"We can do it. We have good medical schools, we have good facilities and we need to upgrade the system."

Gavoka was aware a lot of work ahead lay ahead, with party unity a contentious issue.

But the issue had been thrashed out at last weekend's AGM and he and Vosarogo had the mandate to lead SODELPA to the 2022 polls, he said.

Opposition Leader Sitiveni Rabuka, right, with senior party members from left George Shiu Raj, Ratu Glanville Lalabalavu, Ratu Epenisa Cakobau and Ro Teimumu Kepa.

Opposition Leader Sitiveni Rabuka, right, with senior party members from left George Shiu Raj, Ratu Glanville Lalabalavu, Ratu Epenisa Cakobau and Ro Teimumu Kepa. Photo: Facebook/SODELPA