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Fiji gets new leader Rabuka after landslide party vote

By Lucy Craymer and Praveen Menon

WELLINGTON (RockedBuzz via Reuters) – Sitiveni Rabuka became Fiji’s prime minister on Saturday after a coalition of parties narrowly voted to install him as leader of the strategically important Pacific nation, marking the end of Frank Bainimarama’s 16 years in power.

Fiji has been instrumental in the South Pacific’s strategic response to growing competition for influence between China and the United States, and Rabuka said it favors Western-style democracy.

His party’s manifesto seeks to establish dialogue with major powers and reassess borrowing practices to ensure the country does not fall into a debt trap.

Rabuka, voted in by secret ballot with 28 votes to Bainimarama’s 27, will lead a coalition government including the National Federation Party and the Liberal Social Democratic Party (SODELPA).

Leaving parliament on Saturday, Rabuka told waiting media that he was humiliated to become Fiji’s prime minister before being rushed off to be sworn in by the country’s president.

Biman Prasad, leader of the NFP and new finance minister, said the incoming government would work for the people of Fiji.

“We will work with everyone. We will work with the opposition, we will consult and work with our own people,” he told reporters.

Fiji has a history of military coups, including two staged by Rabuka in 1987, and has at times witnessed strained race relations between its indigenous majority and a large ethnic Indian group until constitutional reform in 2013 removed a race-based voting system that favored indigenous Fijians.

The military was called in on Thursday to assist the police in maintaining law and order following allegations of attacks on India’s ethnic minority after the election. Those claims were disputed by the new government.

Bainimarama told media on Saturday that his removal from power reflected the democratic process.

“This is democracy. This is my legacy,” he said. He was elected leader of the opposition.

The prime ministers of New Zealand and Australia issued statements congratulating newly inaugurated Rabuka.

“We highly value Fiji as a friend and close partner as we advance our shared priorities for the region,” said New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Anthony Albanese, Prime Minister of Australia, added in a tweet that he too was looking forward to working with Rabuka.

While details are scarce on how the new government’s foreign policy will develop, Rabuka’s party manifesto says it wants to strengthen diplomatic ties with all countries, deepen Fiji’s relations with other Pacific nations, and “establish dialogue with all the major powers in the world to promote mutual respect for sovereignty and the resolution of geopolitical disputes”.

(Reporting by Lucy Craymer; Editing by Sandra Maler and Edmund Klamann)