Politics and political impasse: will Fiji learn from our history?

Laisiasa Naulumatua Art Exhibition

By Ariela Zibiah

A political cartoon published in 1977 in Fiji has taken on a rather poignant meaning, as it could’ve been speaking to today’s political impasse.

The cartoon depicts Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, whose party had just experienced its first loss after two elections, leaving on a boat (Leadership) and Siddiq Koya, the then party leader of the National Federation Party (NFP) sprinting halfway down the jetty shouting: Hey! Hey! I’m the skipper!

The panel was the second of a triptych (three panelled artwork) that provided visuals of the lamentable aftermath of the 1977 national general elections.

The first panel has Ratu Mara seated behind the wheel of a car representing the state, his passengers were his core Cabinet members. Koya had one foot perched on the front tyre of the driver’s side asking for the keys: “The keys please — I’m the driver now”, published on May 28th in the Fiji Times.

These cartoons were part of a recent 50 panel exhibition at the Oceania Centre for Arts, Culture and Pacific Studies (University of the South Pacific). It was a posthumous reflection of works by Laisiasa Naulumatua that were published by The Fiji Times (Saturday) and the Daily Post (Sunday) between the 1960s and 1990s. The exhibition was based on a 2016 paper by Professor Sudesh Mishra titled Cartooning History: Lai’s Fiji and the Misadventures of a Scrawny Black Cat.

So why is a cartoon published more than 40 years ago relevant to the political stalemate we’re witnessing today?

The 1977 general elections featured 132 candidates for the 52 seats in Parliament: the ruling Alliance Party 52, the NFP 35 and the Fijian Nationalist Party (FNP) 17. NFP secured 26 seats, Alliance Party, 24, one FNP and one independent.

NFP sought a coalition with the Alliance Party because of its fragile majority however Ratu Mara stood by the party’s stance before the elections that it would not form a coalition. The independent candidate and Butadroka’s narratives were diametrically opposed to that of NFP. In fact, one of Butadroka’s main campaign promises was the expulsion of Indians from Fiji.

For Ratu Mara, a coalition with NFP would fuel Butadroka’s rhetoric that Ratu Mara was so power hungry, he would join “a party where Indians were supreme”.

Results were confirmed on the night of Monday, April 4th after which Ratu Mara immediately announced he would resign the next day, Tuesday (April 5th). Koya said he was not ready to make a statement as his party would meet the next day. Tuesday came and went, NFP did not have any updates.

The Alliance Party on the other hand met and re-elected Ratu Mara its leader, and Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau, his deputy.

On Wednesday, April 6th, Koya sought a meeting with Ratu George Cakobau, the Governor General. After the meeting, Koya said that representatives of the two parties (NFP — Irene J Narayan, K C Ramrakha, Jai Ram Reddy and Captain Atunaisa Maitoga and the Alliance Party — Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau, Jonati Mavoa, Mohammed Ramzan and Charles Stinton) would meet the next day (Thursday, April 7th) to discuss the formation of a new government. There was also mention of a caretaker government.

On Thursday morning, between 11am and 2pm, Koya finally won the party leadership vote. At around 3:15pm, Government House was informed that Koya was ready to be sworn in as the prime minister. At 3:45pm, Ratu Mara was summoned to Government House. With no word still from NFP, he was sworn in as the new prime minister at 4:15pm.

Koya was just leaving Government Buildings for Government House to be sworn in around the same time.

Koya had been going through a wretched time as internal bickering reared its ugly head when he most needed support: he lost the prime ministership. He still hadn’t put together a government within a four-day period when the Governor General stepped in. Ratu Mara said of that afternoon:

“It was a complete surprise to me … I felt it was my duty, and I did my duty — without question and without hesitation. I was not told, nor did I feel it was for me to speculate on the reasons for the Governor-General’s decision.”

Reddy said later in a radio interview that he did not believe an NFP government would be viable; there was more to a government than just ministers; he questioned the loyalty of the civil service, police and the army; he noted that the Upper House majority was held by Great Council of Chiefs and non-NFP members; and he wondered if they had a leader who could command the respect of all Fijians.

Ratu Mara led the interim minority government to a national general elections in September that same year. The Alliance Party won with an absolute majority — 36 seats out of 52.

The NFP on the other hand imploded, into Dove and Flower. Lai’s third panel of the triptych depicts the implosion of the NFP through a caricature of Koya and Ramrakha tearing apart the initials of the party.

In 2022, how will artists depict this political impasse?

The 2022 general election was contested between 343 candidates in 11 parties, vying for ticks from 693,915 registered voters. A total of 2071 polling stations were used this year. Of the 473,910 votes cast, only 470,584 were deemed valid.

Four parties crossed the threshold — Fiji First claiming 42.55 per cent of the valid votes cast (200,246), People’s Alliance Party 35.82 per cent (168,581), NFP 8.89 per cent (41,830) and SODELPA (Social Democratic Liberal Party) 5.14 per cent (24,172).

The remaining seven parties collectively polled 35,755 which, economist, Professor Wadan Narsey said is equivalent to four seats in Parliament.

SODELPA found itself in the unenviable position of holding the balance of power on Sunday, December 18th. In 1977, NFP appeared ill-prepared to form a government. In 2022, SODELPA’s dilemma is managing the clear split in their camp on which party they’d support.

Social media platforms afford citizens the pleasure of following the horse-trading in real time, and being able to comment on it.

Fijians who voted for change in government have gone from jubilance on Tuesday, December 19th (upon hearing that the majority of SODELPA had voted for a coalition with the People’s Alliance Party and the National Federation Party), to nonchalance by Wednesday, December 20, after realising that the President was not convening Parliament.

The Constitution provides that if no party has an absolute majority, the Prime Minister will be chosen by a vote in Parliament.

As we wait, one wonders if there are artists already working the current impasse into their next pieces. Would the impasse we find ourselves in this week be worthy of a political artwork? For writers, articulating the 1977 impasse clarifies and contributes to ones’ knowledge of what happened then.

Ratu Mara had a decisive Governor General who decided for the caretaker governance mode and then chose “the person best able to command the support of the majority”, by the fourth day. He was probably uncomfortable with the absence of a government in place but his reasons, we will never know.

Citizens benefited from experienced career civil servants who ensured that the day-to-day functions of governance continued, performing their caretaker roles independent of politicians, before, during and after the general elections. After reclaiming leadership post-September 1977 , Ratu Mara said of the result:

“The general opinion was that the people had looked into the abyss and had not liked what they saw.”

Today, there are commentators who argue that it is best to work with the administration that was in power prior to the general elections because: “better the devil you know”.

As we stare into the abyss, this idiom rings hollow for we have known the ‘devil’ and rejected his version of Fiji.

Cartooning History: Lai’s Fiji and the Misadventures of a Scrawny Black Cat (article can be located here)

This article first appeared on Ariela’s blog on December 23, 2022.

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