MELBOURNE – Sitiveni Rabuka was sworn in as Fiji’s prime minister on Saturday, capping a tense week in a fragile Pacific democracy where the former military commander first held office more than two decades ago.
The 74-year-old won the nomination by one vote over incumbent Frank Bainimarama at a sitting of the Fijian Parliament in Suva.
Rabuka, the head of the People’s Alliance Party, won after forming a majority coalition with two other parties following last week's close and contentious election. On Thursday, army and navy personnel were reportedly called in to protect minority groups over threats against them following the Dec. 14 vote.
During his swearing-in ceremony, Rabuka pledged to “obey, observe, uphold and maintain” the constitution of his nation.
He said he spoke with Bainimarama, the head of the Fiji First Party who had ruled for almost 16 years, to thank him for his contributions.
“We appreciate what they have done. Some could have been better. But we have to get in there first to see what they have done and what’s left for us to complete. We have six months of the last budget to run,” he told reporters.
Fiji has experienced four military coups over the past 35 years, and both Rabuka and Bainimarama have held lead roles in previous moves to oust former Fijian leaders.
The tripartite coalition had announced on Tuesday its intention to form a government with a combined 29 seats compared to the 26 held by Bainimarama’s party.
The People’s Alliance Party and affiliated National Federation Party shared 26 seats but were able to form an alliance with the Social Democrat Liberal Party to break the deadlock.
Bainimarama and Fiji First had refused to concede the election results in the days following the polls.
A secret ballot of lawmakers on Saturday chose Rabuka 28-27. The result indicated that one member of the new ruling coalition was against the change in prime minister.
The same ballot split occurred in voting for the roles of house speaker and deputy speaker earlier during a Christmas Eve parliamentary session that lasted three hours.
Rabuka had said prior to Saturday’s sitting that his pending election would mark “a turning point in Fiji’s modern history.”
Rabuka, who was also prime minister between 1992 and 1999, instigated two coups in 1987.
Bainimarama led a coup in 2006 that ousted Laisenia Quarase as prime minister, a role he then assumed until the elevation of Rabuka on Saturday.
Earlier in Saturday’s parliamentary session, Naiqama Lalabalavu was appointed the new speaker of the house after a secret ballot saw him receive one vote more than Fiji First candidate Epeli Nailatikau, who served as president of Fiji from 2009 to 2015.
The leaders of Fiji’s closest regional allies welcomed the election of Rabuka.
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese described his nation and Fiji as members of the same “family” in a social media post, adding that he looks forward to “strengthening our countries' relationship even further in 2023.”
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hailed “our very warm relationship” with Fiji and said she looked forward to working with Rabuka. She also acknowledged Bainimarama's leadership, saying he had created “an important legacy for Fiji” as a regional leader in several areas including climate change.