Analysis: What The SODELPA Ruling Means

Party needs to ditch old culture of giving internal disputes ineffective superficial treatment.
25 Apr 2020 12:10
Analysis: What The SODELPA Ruling Means
Former SODELPA leader Ro Teimumu Kepa.

The Civil High Court judgment against SODELPA on Thursday came as no surprise.

A prelude to it happened last year when the Mesake Nawari Report comprehensively outlined a series of irregularities in the party’ s governance.

Mr Nawari, an independent business executive, was recruited to conduct an inquiry after complaints were received against the party post 2018 General Election.

By that time, the party was deeply entrenched in a culture that took the principles of good governance lightly, like accountability and transparency.

The culture was based on a fundamentally flawed concept that that these principles can be compromised for the sake of unity. It almost worked in the 2018 election.

Ironically, it was attributed to the election loss – an election some believed they could have won if party HQ did not change the strategy to promote constituency candidates.

In the last weeks, before polling started, the focus on constituency candidates shifted and it led to a number of sitting members of Parliament losing their seats.

The change was made to boost the votes for some candidates, it was claimed.

The issue led to some heated online exchanges from opposing groups. It escalated to a point that the party asked Mr Nawari to examine the party’s governance.

It was the culmination of years of propagating a culture that also took in the “vakavanua” (traditional) way which was used from time to time for political expediency.

At time the lines that separated good governance principles from cultural values and sensitivities were blurred.

When unity was the main goal in preparing for an election, holding people accountable in a row or dispute was not actively pursued because it would cause division and alienate people.

This culture, however, gave rise to traditional politics of provincialism which was complex and more complicated to deal with.

Ro Teimumu Kepa

It’s best example was the way former party leader and former Opposition leader Ro Teimumu Kepa was dragged through the mud before she was eventually forced to relinquish the party leader role. She is a recognised high ranking chief of Fiji, Roko Tui Dreketi, paramount chief of Rewa Province and the Burebasaga Confederacy.

The plot to oust her as party leader started after she made overtures to the National Federation Party for an alliance in Opposition.

The deal was made good with NFP leader Biman Prasad being appointed as Opposition Economy spokesperson.

It was felt that there were enough suitable candidates in SODELPA’s parliamentary caucus to hold this important role than handing it to a party with only three sitting members.

The tense situation was made worse when the NFP did not join SODELPA in boycotting Indian Prime Minister Natendra Modi’s address in Parliament in November 2014, barely two months after Fiji returned to democratic elections.

Gaunavinaka Report

As part of the conspiracy to question Ro Teimumu’s leadership, the controversial Gaunavinaka Report was leaked to the Fiji Sun.

The report was critical of Ro Teimumu’s leadership and the administration of the Opposition Office. While no one claimed responsibility for that report, it is understood that it was engineered by a group of so-called reformers most of whom were from the Cakaudrove-Bua-Macuata (CBM) bloc.

After the report’s exposure, MP Mosese Bulitavu called for Ro Teimumu to step down to allow for investigations to be carried out. She stood her ground and the standoff led to a serious split in the party.

The reformers were also behind the move to make sweeping changes to the party constitution which were approved despite opposition from the Ro Teimumu camp.

One of the amendments was for the party leader to automatically lose the role when the party lost an election. It forced Ro Teimumu to relinquish the position.

As the damaging political fallout was felt in the party, attempt was made to patch the differences and bury the hatchet. An inquiry was held followed by a disciplinary committee hearing after both sides filed accusations and counter accusations. No one was held accountable because everyone was pardoned.

This was a classic example of good governance giving way to political expediency. The party hierarchy felt it was the appropriate way to go to maintain party solidarity before the 2018 election.

But it did not solve the root of the problem and the wound still festered going into the 2018 election.

It took a group of disgruntled members from the Suva Constituency to bring things out in the open. Even the wife of Vice President Anare Jale, Emele Duituturaga, a prominent civil society leader, is one of the named plaintiffs.

She is a champion of democracy and good governance. With the couple on opposite camps, it shows how serious this issue has developed.

Court judgment

It is therefore surprising that SODELPA president Ro Filipe Tuisawau appears to have played down the implications of the court judgment and carries on as if it’s business as usual. His election at the Yaroi annual general meeting in Savusavu, last year has been ruled null and void.

The judge, Justice Vishwa Datt Sharma, has left it to the financial members to decide whether Ro Filipe should come back as president. If he has any role now it would be to help organise fresh elections. But he cannot perform other functions on behalf of the party. That is one interpretation that lawyers are looking at.

The other alternative is to appoint an interim committee that will independently organise and conduct the new elections. But Ro Filipe cannot carry on as if he is still the president and speaking on behalf the party. To do so would be morally and ethically wrong in the wake of Justice Sharma’s landmark decision .

*TOMORROW: More on SODELPA and its future


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