3 Nov 2022

Fiji’s 2022 general elections: What you need to know

12:28 pm on 3 November 2022
Frank Bainimarama

Frank Bainimarama Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Fijians will head to the polls in December, marking the country's third democratic elections under the new 2013 Constitution imposed by Frank Bainimarama after he overthrew a democratically elected government in a military coup in 2006.

With more than 692,000 Fijians registered to cast their votes to elect 55 members of parliament on December 14, the elections commission has assured people that "we are ready" and the "Fijian Elections Office has completed all its preparations", as postal voting applications for overseas voters and those who will not be able to cast a ballot on the poll day, kicked off on Monday.

Here's what you need to know:

What is at stake?

The announcement of the poll date via a Facebook post by the Fijian government ended several months of waiting as the Fijian people and major opposition figures started questioning Bainimarama's intentions for withholding the date of the election day.

Bainimarama has been in power for the past 16 years, after taking control in 2006 and almost eight and a half years later in 2014 led his newly formed political party, FijiFirst, to win decisively at the ballot to become a democratically elected prime minister.

He won the elections for a second time in 2018 but only managed to accumulate just over 50 percent of the total votes to lead a majority government.

The 2022 general election appears to be Bainimarama's litmus test, as he attempts to consolidate his power as the longest serving Fiji PM, while going up against his arch-rival and another former military strongman and coup maker Sitiveni Rabuka.

Fiji's Sodelpa leader, Sitiveni Rabuka.

Sitiveni Rabuka Photo: RNZ / Koroi Hawkins

"The 2018 election showed that Prime Minister Bainimarama was the country's most popular politician. His strongest rival in 2018 based on vote count was the former prime minister Rabuka, and these two are expected to go head-to-head again," Fijian political commentator Dr Shailendra Singh said.

"The other two parties in parliament, the National Federation Party, led by Professor Biman Prasad, and SODELPA could retain their seats and they could even play kingmaker in case of a hung parliament."

Singh said while FijiFirst had won two elections it was accused of "dictatorialism", and its opponents believed "they have been in power for too long and it is becoming authoritarian in its attitude".

"So maybe voters feel it is time for a change," he said.

How many parties are contesting?

Nine political parties have registered to contest the 2022 elections, two more than the previous elections:

  • All Peoples Party
  • FijiFirst
  • Fiji Labour Party
  • National Federation Party
  • New Generation Party
  • Social Democratic Liberal Party
  • The People's Alliance
  • Unity Fiji
  • We Unite Fiji Party

Singh said Fiji's D'Hondt voting system favoured the larger parties and the minority parties "feel disadvantaged" because they cannot get elected into parliament.

"This is because they need to meet the five per cent threshold, or 30,000 votes, to even enter parliament. So this is a big ask of the smaller political parties," he said.

The deputy leader of the opposition in Fiji and NFP president Biman Prasad.

Biman Prasad Photo: RNZ Pacific/ Koroi Hawkins

"One of the weaknesses of Fiji's electoral system as some see it is that votes that go into the smaller party, which don't make it into parliament, are wasted votes."

It also meant the electoral system does not encourage independent candidates to contest the polls because of the sheer volume of votes needed to enter parliament.

Who are the main personalities?

Bainimarama's main challenger was the country's first coup maker - now a self-proclaimed reformed Christian - a veteran political operator and leader of the People's Alliance Party, Rabuka.

According to Victoria University of Wellington political scientist Professor Jon Fraenkel, "FijiFirst is an odd political party" with its key politicians being Bainimarama and his attorney-general Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum.

"Bainimarama rarely makes unscripted speeches these days. He got into trouble in the 2018 election campaign when he had the debate with Rabuka and he was not quite clear on exactly what GDP was," Fraenkel said.

Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum.

Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum Photo: Facebook/Fiji govt

"So really, Aiyaz [Sayed-Khaiyum] is the main man. He is the one that gives most of the speeches and there are lots of people within the state who are close backers [of FijiFirst]."

Fraenkel said the People's Alliance particularly enjoyed the strong support in the indigenous community, but Rabuka also had some allies in the Fiji-Indian community.

"It will be interesting to see if he can pick up any votes for the People's Alliance in that community as well."

He said other big personalities in the mix are NFP's Prasad, leader of Fiji Labour Party and former PM Mahendra Chaudhry, and leader of Unity Fiji and former governor of the Reserve Bank of Fiji, Savenaca Narube.

While SODELPA - the party that Rabuka led in 2018 - with its majority indigenous voting base and which was a major opposition party in parliament in 2014 and 2018 still exists, commentators are predicting that "SODELPA's fortunes will wane considerably," Fraenkel said.

What are the main election issues?

Poverty, national debt, ethnic tensions, including the fear of further coups, and young peoples concerns will be key issues, Singh said.

According to the government poverty estimates, up to a quarter of the population live in poverty. But critics predict as much as half of the population was struggling to put food on the table.

"The major election issue in this election is the cost of living. In Fiji, the poverty rate was nearly 30 percent in 2020," he said.

"The government is blaming Covid-19 and unfavourable global conditions, while the opposition is claiming that the economy was in decline even before these adverse events."

Fijian Elections Office.

Fiji election office Photo: RNZ Pacific/ Koroi Hawkins

Fiji's national debt sits at 80 percent of GDP, and figures such as Prasad have said the country will be in $FJD10 billion in debt by the end of the year because Bainimarama's "economic management is out of control."

But Singh said, "regular voters are more concerned about bread-and-butter issues."

"The national debt for the rank-and-file voters usually is not that much of a priority. But Fiji's national debt is at unprecedented levels and the opposition and challenger parties have made much of this debt situation."

Safety and security, especially given Fiji's ethnic tensions and coup culture "will be on the minds of voters in the elections," Singh said.

Half of all registered voters for the 2022 polls are below the age of 40, and Singh said "issues that affect the youth, for example education and employment, will be top priorities".

"The parties will be trying to woo young people to vote for them so they might be prioritising issues that affect our young people."

What is the temperature on the ground?

According to Fraenkel, FijiFirst was using the money it had received from international financial institutions and development partners for post-Covid-19 recovery "to win the election".

"In 2018, as the multinational observers report pointed out, there were lots of freebies, handouts, there were lots of money given to voters to try and curry support. That's the case this time around as well," he said.

"The world bank, for example, have been financing this inflation adjustment that gives out quite a bit of money to people. There has been quite a lot of budget support coming from Australia and New Zealand as well and FijiFirst is certainly using this to try and win the election.

"We will see how far those gifts go and whether voters are influenced by that this time."

The other issue that has been continuously raised by political parties was that opposition politicians and prospective candidates were being targeted by the Bainimarama government.

Reports of Bainimarama's political opponents regularly taken into custody by the anti-corruption agency or the police for questioning and charged by the courts was common in local media.

Fraenkel said there had been a number of different court cases.

"Some of them are very punitive and directed against members of the opposition party. [These] are very interesting."

"There is also a case against a prominent lawyer in Fiji Richard Naidu, who was going to stand for the National Federation Party that is now facing possible conviction."

"Why? Simply because he ridiculed a judge who had confused the words injunction and injection."

Could there be a change in government?

The People's Alliance and the NFP - the two opposition parties with the biggest momentum - have already announced that they were going into a coalition prior to the election.

Fraenkel said a coalition government post election was "highly likely" and while there have been questions whether it was unwise on the part of NFP, "there is a good logic to it".

According to him, under Fiji's open list proportional representation electoral system since 2014, "it is rare to have one party commanding a majority. The more usual thing is coalition governments."

He said people in Fiji had become accustomed to this sort of two-party system under the new electoral law, "but that is likely to change in future".

"These first two elections under the system have been very much influenced by the fact that the incumbent office holding party is military backed.

"It came to power with a prime minister who was a former military commander. Once that changes, and we move into a different political environment, you could expect a more fragmented party scene," he said.

But Singh said Fiji had never had a successful transfer of power since it gained independence in 1970, as the scars from four coups in 50 years still remained fresh in voters' minds.

He said a smooth transition of power "is really crucial for the sake of continuity and stability."