Politics, 2017 and beyond

IN politics and beyond, there are some things about 2016 that we will remember for a long time. Globally, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump are two events many people had dismissed as impossible. However, they happened and the world will have to live with the consequences.

Locally these issues stand out in 2016: detaining and questioning of three Opposition party leaders; suspension of two Opposition MPs from Parliament; appointment of 1987 coup leader as party leader of SODELPA; appointment of former Fiji land force commander as police commissioner; and a former navy commander convicted of manslaughter appointed as prisons commissioner.

Amid all these, there is one obvious message. Our understanding of recognising what is “unlikely” needs a major shift.

So, what is in store for us in politics in 2017 and beyond? The future is of course unknown. With the type and nature of political changes taking place in Fiji, it is worth exploring likely future political developments and outcomes.

Future of SODELPA

SODELPA is being torn apart by two divisions. It is possible that SODELPA will be split over Sitiveni Rabuka and go into the 2018 election as two separate parties. It could be attributed to the clash of leadership preference, but it really goes beyond that. It is also an offshoot of the absence of an agreed ideological agenda in the presence of shifting political ground.

If SODELPA splits, it is due not merely to the leadership crisis but also because of the absence of any clearly defined and unanimously accepted ideological strategy.

Whatever the issue, SODELPA’s current difficulties would have wider implications that stretch beyond party politics and which could have potentially impact politics as a whole.

As SODELPA drifts from this crisis towards a split, the prospects for change in government in 2018 would hardly appear more unfavourable.

Why? It is expected that the breakaway party of SODELPA would take a more nationalist approach in its political agenda. SODELPA, on the other hand, will possibly move to the centre and stand aside FijiFirst and NFP. Its leader Sitiveni Rabuka has already made this clear immediately after his selection.

If SODELPA splits into two parties, FijiFirst will be favourites heading into the 2018 election. SODELPA and its breakaway party would both be contesting mainly for the iTaukei votes. A likely outcome would be a divided iTaukei community and the two parties (SODELPA and the breakaway faction) sharing 15-20 seats between them. This is an optimistic scenario, but it could get worse.

There will be further implications, especially to the NFP and FijiFirst. Because of the nationalist approach, non-iTaukei voters and young iTaukei voters would see the option of moving/remaining to/with either FijiFirst or NFP.

NFP seems to be making significant gains among the electorate and its leader is now more recognised than the 2014 election.

Party politics

The present configuration of our polity rests on three parties. On a political spectrum of ideologies (from which policies emerge) in Fiji, ethnicity continues to play a fundamental role in the make-up of party agenda/politics. Ethnicity combined with demography is the conundrum of an election strategy in Fiji.

It is expected that the voting population in 2018 will once again be roughly equal (or perhaps just slightly favouring the iTaukei) between the two ethnic communities.

Let us say a party on the left of the political spectrum is SODELPA. This means that SODELPA targeted 50 per cent of the voting population (or 25 seats) in the last election. It got 15. For SODELPA to effectively target all 50 seats, it will have to move to the middle ground and appeal to all voters.

NFP and FijiFirst would fall somewhere in the middle and both targeted all voters (all 50 seats). This is where the relative advantage of FijiFirst lies compared with SODELPA. As evident from the 2014 election, FijiFirst and NFP appeal to both ethnic communities.

2018 election

It is possible that there could be more than three distinct parties contesting the 2018 election. However, none of the political parties would dare to fall to the right of the spectrum (appealing mainly to non-iTaukei voters only). Changing demography does not provide that privilege now and into the future.

The 2018 election therefore will be won or lost in the middle ground. SODELPA is therefore in a tricky situation. It can remain on the left of the political ideology and once again mainly target iTaukei voters. Or it can make a shift to the middle ground and appeal to non-iTaukei voters as well. In this regard, the only drag is SODELPA’s past life as seen by non-iTaukei voters.

NFP and FijiFirst are already there and it depends how many votes each of the parties collect. For these two parties, what will be required are a prime ministerial leader, a credible strategy and a careful media campaign.

Avenues for opposition

If the opposition parties want to see themselves in government, several issues need addressing.

First, SODELPA needs to get its house in order and ensure the party does not split into two parties. A split will divide the iTaukei voters as either SODELPA or the breakaway party will find it extremely hard to appeal to the non-iTaukei community. Avoiding a split might require change in leadership as the recently elected leader is one reason why SODELPA is likely to split.

Second, SODELPA needs to shift to centre ground in terms of its political agenda. This will require, among other things, a good proportion of non-iTaukei among its 50 candidates in the 2018 election. Agreed, this will not necessarily bring non-iTaukei voters in droves but will provide a good strategy for both SODELPA and NFP.

Third, the Opposition would benefit if there are no more than three parties contesting election. This can be achieved by absorbing key candidates from any possible parties (for instance, minor parties outside parliament such as FLP or PDP) into either SODELPA or NFP.

However, a grand coalition of all the Opposition parties is likely to benefit only FijiFirst. As in 2014, FijiFirst will bundle up the Opposition and go to town by using SODELPA’s past life among the non-iTaukei community. With this strategy, FijiFirst will maintain its share of votes by effectively stopping non-iTaukei voters from moving back to home.

* These are the views of Dr Neelesh Gounder, and not of The Fiji Times or of USP where he is employed.

More Stories