Analysis

SODELPA’s Winding and Troubled Road

Joseph Veramu an economic policy consultant can be contacted on joseph.veramu@outlook.com or patreon.com/josephveramu or Amazon.com
23 May 2020 15:56
SODELPA’s Winding and Troubled Road
Ro Filipe Tuisawau.

Since its formation, SODELPA has had a challenging journey. Although the public narrative on SODELPA sounds negative, this article tries to be constructive and positive in offering suggestions. Since the party’s failings are now in the public domain, it is important for Fijians to contribute to the discussions. At the end of the day, we want a strong and vibrant Opposition because that is good for our Fijian democracy. For a change, we want to hear good stories too rather than just the negative headlines it seems to attract almost on a regular basis.

One of SODELPA’s flaws is its highly prescriptive Constitution that prescribes detailed processes and procedures. Given that its main clientele are iTaukei communities where decision-making tends to be based on consensus and involves a lot of consultations, networking and talanoa with chiefs and the people, it might have been prudent to have a flexible Constitution rather than a ‘copy and paste’ of an inflexible Eurocentric model.

Under the ‘flexible’ Constitution, risk management strategies can be built in and disagreements can be solved amicably internally rather than through the Courts. A review of the Constitution can help rectify issues including provisions for discipline.

Amended constitution on the leaders’ positions

One important lesson in iTaukei culture is that if you have disagreements with someone, you talk it over usually over a bowl of kava and come to a resolution after praying together. This was not the case, after 2014.

The MPs from the Cakaudrove, Bua and Macuata (CBM) faction were clearly unhappy with Ro Teimumu Kepa’s leadership style. Instead of sitting down with her and looking at ways she could improve with their help, they decided to amend the Constitution. The amended constitution stipulates that the party leader automatically loses the position if the party loses an election.

This amendment is coming back to haunt the Party. For readers who may be confused, the Opposition Leader (currently Rabuka) and the Party Leader are two separate positions.

The Opposition Leader is mainly responsible for the parliamentarians. The policies, finances, campaigns and general party machinery is controlled by the Party Leader. The CBM faction saw that Rabuka had gained 5 extra seats so they felt that he should remain as party leader however there was a view that the Constitution should be followed. There has been talk of amending the constitution again to delete this particular provision. One view going forward is that if this provision is deleted, SODELPA might like to consider the Australian political party model where an MP can get the signatures of 50 per cent plus 1 of her/his party members to ask for a ‘spill’ which is a vote to try and change the party leader. (This means that the parliamentary leader and party leader positions are fused into one position.) This is why you see that within one political term there can be 3 different party leaders or Prime Ministers in Australia. Despite this, it is the most successful democracy in the world.

SODELPA Court Case

Watisoni Nata, the lead plaintiff of the SODELPA faction that won their court case noted that one of the reasons for the legal action was the failure of the party executives to address the contentious issues.

One of these issues raised was that SODELPA messed up the 2018 election which they believed they should have won if the party had stuck with the original strategy of promoting constituency candidates (rather than the abruptly changed agenda of getting everyone to vote for the party leader, Mr Rabuka.) This view holds that had they followed the original agreed plan, SODELPA would not have lost 2 places each in Tailevu and Naitasiri and would have collectively garnered more votes to propel them to lead the Government.

An opposing view notes that this is merely an assumption. That there is a relatively very short period between the time that the candidates’ numbers are given out and actual voting.

The task of advertising these numbers to (especially rural and maritime) voters many of whom cannot access radio, TV and newspaper media is very daunting.

They feel that voters are not sophisticated and can be intimidated in the voting booth when they are presented with a ballot paper the size of a small table cloth with hundreds of numbers.

It is easier for them to remember the political leader’s number rather than searching for 50 separate numbers. They argue that in one European country with a similar voting system to Fiji, voters can have a choice of just asking for the ballot paper of the party they want to vote for (rather than the whole table cloth list.) so voting for individual constituency candidates might work in this scenario. However, in Fiji’s case, one should be careful what one wishes for as this approach can be more beneficial to FijiFirst.

The role of Savenaca Narube’s Unity Fiji Party (UFP) in siphoning votes from SODELPA should not be discounted lightly. UFP is closely watching these current developments and can benefit from disgruntled SODELPA voters looking for alternatives.

Another contentious issue was the huge campaign funds sent from SODELPA groups in the US. It is reported that they have not yet received acquittal details. Some Fiji groups that receive funds from overseas donors use finance systems like Xero which is linked to the Bank Statements.

Donors outside Fiji are also given passwords to look into the transactions at any time they wish. Such a system will require a beefed-up Admin and Finance Section in the Party with up-to-date software and PCs.

But surely, Mr Rabuka knows this transparent system well given his encyclopaedic knowledge of finance and GDP!

The SODELPA Factions

Watisoni Nata’s group appears to be winning the media battle for the hearts and minds of viewers and readers. Whenever Mr Nata, Ms Samisoni or Mr Duiduituraga speak to the media, they appear unruffled, calm, polite, friendly and their message is similar. The summarised message is that “they are grateful that the Court has ruled and enlightened everyone…The Savusavu elections deprived everybody of a fair chance to choose ethical leaders…when people’s rights are deprived, the process is no longer democratic and reeks of corruption that must not be condoned.”

Watisoni Nata’s interview with Fijivilage.com on 23/4 (speaking on behalf of his faction) appears to imply that after the ‘new’ AGM, SODELPA will have a new look leadership team. Nata reiterated that they want “leaders that are credible, and this is to be done in the next AGM that the Court has ruled is necessary.

They must be ethical, transparent, and strong to take the necessary decisions as we have displayed.” The final nail in the coffin was when Nata said that, “..as far as possible as the perpetrators of the anomalies in Savusavu are concerned, they call on them strongly, to do the right thing… those executives have already caused the party a lot of anguish.”

It looks like Nata’s faction has the upper hand given that they are very well organised in Vitilevu and it will be expensive getting in supporters of the other faction from the North. Going forward, Nata’s group might like to note that sometimes well laid plans and high projection graphs on glossy paper does not often pan out in reality. They may have 200k like on their boosted social media pages and have a set of new fresh leaders but the SODELPA rural base may have a divergent view.

Ro Filipe Tuisawau’s group represent a very substantial voter base and it might be well worth rethinking strategies especially if the plan is to cast them out of their political Valhala.

Ro Filipe Tuisawau’s faction

One of the challenges in Fiji when two groups have a public falling out is that supporters of each are quick to use social media to attack.

Sometimes these posts sound spiteful and meant to hurt. Media reports indicate that Ro Filipe’s group has tried to reconcile with the other faction on a number of occasions, without success.

Ro Filipe has often sounded exasperated and has not helped his cause with his ‘shoot from the hips’ statement’ against, for example, LGBTIQ individuals or his dismissive statement that those who don’t like the way he is running the party can join another party. In highly charged situations, it might be helpful for Ro Filipe to ask for written questions from the Media and to carefully provide written responses.

Spontaneous radio or TV responses especially if one is thinking in the iTaukei language and responding in English sometimes sound cold and produces the opposite effect.

His faction has appealed the High Court Judgement. There are provisions within their appeal for reconciliation in terms of party unity. Simione Valenitabua, a highly regarded lawyer said, “The appellants sought our legal advice on settlement as encouraged by the Leader of Opposition and Party Leader and we support such reconciliation exercise within the appellate proceedings.”

Laisenia Qarase

One question people ask is how PM Qarase dealt with such infighting in the SDL days. I served for a very short period in his PM’s Economic Think Tank many years ago when I was a young and green USP Lecturer. Having been a former banker, Qarase was very strict on financial accountability and policy transparency.

He set the example which everyone followed. Politics attracts people with huge egos and self-interests. I observed that Mr Qarase listened to their views and provided his own well-reasoned rebuttal. Once a group of teens sent by the Youth Ministry came to air their views and Mr Qarase heard them with deep respect as if they were a group of foreign ambassadors. Basically, he dealt with the problems when still small and manageable.

The issues were not allowed to fester to a stage where reconciling or solving the issues was nigh impossible. Some of the more troublesome politicians were kept close so he could monitor the intrigue. \

Mr Qarase allowed one young frisky Indo Fijian Minister, a loose cannon to do the media rounds and fizzled out after his steam dried up. He was profuse afterwards on his praises for PM Qarase.

FijiFirst: Since everyone has the PMs phone number, there is a very open system where issues can be raised freely. The FijiFirst does not tolerate big egos and people who expect to go into parliament for personal gain.

Cliques are discouraged. PM Bainimarama is very humble and down to earth and has a pragmatic action-oriented approach.

There are no long-winded discussions. One does not have to bring kava or whales tooth. The issues are identified and the approach to solving them is identified for actioning.

For MPs who misbehave, the action is swift.

Conclusion: We know that iTaukei(s) are often Christlike in their behaviour (when they put their hearts into it.) So it could happen that Ro Filipe’s group and Nata’s group may come together. In such a scenario, they pray, cry out to the Lord, speak in tongues and decide to reconcile.

Although politics makes for strange bedfellows, it should be appreciated that God works in mysterious ways so the unexpected might still happen.

Feedback: rosi.doviverata@fijisun.com.fj

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