Digital Snapshot

by Eva U Wagner

FIJI – New Head of State (President)

Digital Snapshot #24/21

12 November 2021

A potpourri of current affairs topics from Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific brought to you by KAS Australia and the Pacific. The weekly digital snapshot showcases selected media and think tank articles to provide a panorama view and analysis of the debate in these countries.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in these articles do not necessarily reflect KAS Australia’s position. Rather, they have been selected to present an overview of the various topics and perspectives which have been dominating the public and political debate in Australia and the Pacific region.

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The Republic of Fiji has elected a new head of state.

The current Head of State’s, His Excellency Major-General (Ret’d) Jioji Konusi Konrote, term comes to an end this month after he served the maximum of 2 consecutive terms provided for under the 2013 Constitution of the Republic of Fiji – Laws of Fiji. President Konrote was the first non-iTaukei president to be elected by Parliament. Earlier presidents were elected by the Great Council of Chiefs, a constitutional body abolished (turned into an aristocratic body with no powers) in 2012 by former military dictator turned prime minister Frank Bainimarama. The election of Ratu Wiliame Katonivere is said to show the respect that people still have for the chiefly system.

Under the Constitution, whenever a vacancy arises in the Office of the President, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are called upon to nominate one name each to the Speaker who shall put both the names to the floor of Parliament for voting by the members of Parliament. Prime Minister Bainimarama’s ruling Fiji First Party nominated Ratu Wiliame Katonivere, who was supported by 28 members of parliament. The Opposition nominee HON. RO TEIMUMU KEPA – Parliament of the Republic of Fiji from the Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA) garnered 23 votes.

The nominations were criticised for being unconstitutional. As former prime minister and Fiji Labour Party leader Mahendra Chaudhry pointed out “… the Constitution disqualifie[s] anyone who is a member, or holder of any office in any political party from being a candidate for the Office of the President. I, therefore, consider both nominees whose names were proposed in Parliament … to be disqualified from being proposed as candidates. Both the nominees are disqualified within the spirit and intent of the Constitution. The Office of the President is supposed to be apolitical, divorced from any political party affiliation.” He went on to explain that the President-elect was the registered President of the Fiji First Party, at least there was no record of his resignation available, and that his contender was a Member of Parliament for the Opposition.”

SODELPA Leader Viliame Gavoka countered the Labour Leader’s allegation, saying he believe[d] that the opposition acted within the law. In support of his view, he pointed out that under the Constitution, a person holding a public office is not required to resign from that office before accepting nomination for President. Instead, the appointment of the person as the president had the effect of terminating his or her service in that office. He went on to say that the outgoing President was also a parliamentarian at the time he was nominated by his party to stand for this position, thus setting a precedent for the current election.

Unity Fiji Party leader Savenaca Narube said PM Bainimarama had the prerogative to nominate whoever he thought should be President, adding it was important for the President-elect to maintain the independence of his high office. “I think we should all support the new President in his role of leading Fiji and I certainly wish him well in his role and hope that he’ll bring the independence of that position that is still required and particularly the independence of seeking legal advice from independent legal sources and not rely entirely on the government legal advice.”

Former prime minister and People’s Alliance Party leader Sitiveni Rabuka lauded the appointment of the Mr Katonivere, saying the move was “a big turnaround from when Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama had told the Great Council of Chiefs to go drink homebrew under the mango tree”. He said the Government had now gone back to the descendants of the signatories to the 1874 Deed of Cession, and that both presidential nominees signified the respect people still had for Fiji’s chiefly system.

So who is Ratu Wiliame Katonivere?

Telling from media reports, he was born on 20 April 1967 (54 years) as the youngest of 7 siblings. He was installed Tui Macuata in 2013 following the passing of his older brother Ratu Aisea Katonivere. He will be the first chief from this Province to become the head of state, and the youngest president ever. We are also told that he is the World Wide Fund (WWF) for Nature Pacific’s Great Sea Reef Community Champion and was scheduled to speak during the WWF Pacific side event at COP26 in Glasgow. Following his nomination and election as the future head of state, his address was re-scheduled to be recorded and broadcast by video presentation. According to Radio New Zealand, Prime Minister Bainimarama described the President-elect as one of the fiercest defenders of the ocean and of the right of Fiji’s future generations to live in a clean, safe and natural environment. “As the traditional leader of Macuata, he has served as a steward of our Great Sea Reef, the third largest barrier reef in the world.”

Following his election, Mr Katonivere said that he “never dreamt of it”. As President, he will perform ceremonial functions and responsibilities as the Commander-in-Chief of Fiji’s Military Forces.