Fiji’s king-maker party votes to support opposition coalition and oust Frank Bainimarama

‘We believe we have agreed on a way forward that benefits this country,’ party leader Viliame Gavoka told reporters after an internal party vote

People's Alliance party leader Sitiveni Rabuka, right, joins hands with coalition partner Anare Jalu, chair of the Social Democratic Liberal Party, after an agreement to form a new government in Fiji

Fiji’s Social Democratic Liberal party (Sodelpa) said on Friday that it would form a coalition with two other parties, a move that will dislodge the current prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, signalling an end to the former military leader’s 16 years in power.

“We believe we have agreed on a way forward that benefits this country,” party leader Viliame Gavoka said in a news conference after an internal party vote.

Fiji, which has a history of military coups, was dominated by sometimes tense race relations between its indigenous majority and a big ethnic Indian group, before constitutional reform in 2013 to remove a race-based voting system that favoured indigenous Fijians.

Bainimarama, who has yet to concede defeat, said on Thursday the military had been called in to assist police maintain law and order because of attacks on the Indian ethnic minority in the wake of a national election last week that showed no party received a clear majority.

A coalition of three parties including Sodelpa said on Tuesday it had a combined majority and had agreed on the leader of the People’s Alliance, Sitiveni Rabuka, as prime minister. Bainimarama and Rabuka are both former coup leaders.

There was a heavy police presence outside the Southern Cross Hotel in the capital of Suva as the Sodelpa board met on Friday to vote on the matter for a second time in a week.

Addressing media after the meeting ended, Gavoka said Sodelpa’s board had voted 13-12 in favour of forming a coalition with People’s Alliance and the National Federation party.

“We believe we have agreed on a way forward that benefits this country,” he said. “Democracy has won.”

A Sodelpa official told reporters a new coalition agreement would be ready to sign on Wednesday.

Rabuka and Bainimarama had earlier led delegations to the hotel to make presentations to Sodelpa, which has emerged as a power-broker after winning three seats in the hung parliament.

The party supports policies favouring indigenous Fijians, while Rabuka’s coalition partner, the National Federation party, has drawn support from the Indian community.

Board members entering the hotel’s gated compound on Friday had their names checked against a list. Military vehicles patrolled the hotel vicinity, although army commander Maj Gen Jone Kalouniwai said the police were still in control and the military would “respect whatever the outcome is”, media outlet Fiji Village reported.

Fiji has been pivotal to the strategically located region’s response to increasing competition for influence between China and the United States, and struck an agreement with Australia in October to work more closely with its military.

“We stand ready to work with whoever forms government in Fiji,” Australia’s prime minister Anthony Albanese, said on Friday. “Fiji will remain an important partner of Australia.”

Overnight, some Fijians had posted images of calm scenes and Christmas shopping to social media in protest against the decision to call in the military to assist policing.

Fiji’s police commissioner, Sitiveni Qiliho, said in a statement on Friday morning that the police chief operations officer, Abdul Khan, who had been tasked with leading the joint military and police security operation a day earlier, had resigned for “personal reasons”.

Fiji’s president needs to recall parliament by 2 January so legislators can vote for a new prime minister, according to a letter sent by the president to the coalition partners cited by Fiji Village.

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