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Fiji opposition leader suspended from parliament

By: Lavenia Lativerata-Vuadreu

Frank Bainimarama had accused the president of failing to uphold the constitution. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/EPA

Fiji’s opposition leader and its long-serving former prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, has been suspended from parliament for three years for sedition and insulting the president.

The suspension came days after he launched an extraordinary verbal attack on the country’s president, Ratu Wiliame Katonivere.

In a provocative first speech as opposition leader on the opening day of parliament on Monday, Bainimarama criticised Katonivere – who is also the former president of Bainimarama’s party, Fiji First – for supporting the new government, saying he had “failed the Fijian people”.

“He will go down in history as the person who aided and abetted the most incompetent and divisive government,” the opposition leader said.

Bainimarama ruled Fiji for 16 years after seizing power in a military coup, until a national election in December in which a coalition of parties narrowly voted to install Sitiveni Rabuka as prime minister.

Bainimarama accused Katonivere of having failed to uphold the constitution. “As the commander-in-chief, he has failed to provide proper guidance to the RFMF [military],” he said in his speech. “The president has failed to protect the constitution, the rule of law and failed to halt the resultant chaos that is insidiously and rapidly creeping in and the impending disaster that is going to befall upon our beloved country – that will fall upon our people, upon our economy and upon our future generations.

“I appeal to the rank and file of the RFMF to preserve their manna, to maintain their credibility and their calling and not forsake their constitutional role.”

The minister for home affairs and immigration, Pio Tikoduadua, condemned Bainimarama’s comments as “treasonous” as well as denigrating and humiliating to the head of state, and said that in appealing to the military, the opposition leader’s remarks “were highly seditious and disrespectful” and in breach of parliamentary privilege.

On Wednesday the speaker of the house, Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu, ruled Bainimarama’s comments “out of order” and a breach of parliamentary privileges that could get him suspended. Lalabalavu directed the privileges committee, which is made up largely of government members, to deliberate on the matter. On Friday evening it provided its report to parliament recommending Bainimarama be suspended from parliament for three years.

Their recommendation went to a parliamentary vote, and after four hours of debate that went late into the night on Friday – during which time Rabuka pleaded for the suspension to be reduced to 18 months if Bainimarama apologised – parliament voted to suspend the opposition leader until 17 February 2026, bar him from the parliamentary precinct, as well as ordering him to apologise to the president and public. Bainimarama was not in the house during the debate and the vote.

“Seditious words were uttered that breached the standing orders,” Lynda Tabuya, a member of the privileges committee that recommended the suspension, told parliament.

Bainimarama’s Fiji First party denied he had incited rebellion in his speech, and pointed to Bainimarama drawing 29% of all votes in Fiji’s election.

Inia Seruiratu, who was leader of government in parliament during Bainimarama’s administration, is likely to be nominated acting leader of opposition.

Bainimarama’s speech on Monday was in response to Katonivere’s presidential address during the opening of the 2023-24 parliamentary session two weeks ago.

In his address, Katonivere outlined the policies and plans of the Rabuka-led coalition government, which included strengthening Indigenous land rights and undoing some of the initiatives of Bainimarama’s Fiji First government, namely re-establishing the Great Council of Chiefs that was abolished in 2012 during his reign. Bainimarama argued that while the changes advanced Indigenous rights, it suppressed those of others, and he accused Katonivere of having “done an about-turn”.

Fiji has a history of military coups, and its military commander in January warned Rabuka’s new government against making “sweeping changes”.

Fiji has been pivotal to the Pacific island region’s response to strategic competition between the US and China, and will host a meeting of 18 leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum next week.

© 2023 Guardian News & Media Limited


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