And now for the NFP….

And now for the NFP….

By Yellow Bucket
Saturday 10/02/2024
[Image: File]

For Fiji’s oldest party, the National Federation Party, the future “COULD be so bright they’ll have to wear shades”. Note the slight change in the famous song lyric because their future isn’t certain despite their incumbency as a junior member of the coalition.

To give credit where it is due, the NFP led by Professor Biman Prasad, has fought a long and courageous fight to return Fiji to true democracy. It required considerable sacrifice particularly from their leader and it came with limited reward as the Party continues to struggle to develop a significant voter support base.

Traditionally, the party relied primarily on Indo Fijian voters with the prime battle ground being the cane belt. However, thanks to the rise of Mahendra Chaudhry and then FijiFirst it has been a long time since those glory days, but they stuck at it retaining a small but loyal supporter base and a party governance structure that all the other parties should envy.

Post 2014, as an opposition party, they have faced a core dilemma in their battle to oust FijiFirst. Knowing they could never muster the numbers to win in their own right, they had to work with opposition partners and that meant associating with ethno-nationalist elements of SODELPA and later People’s Alliance, and more particularly, the “bogey man” himself, in the minds of Indo Fijians, (Sitiveni Rabuka). The result … easy pickings for FijiFirst and Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum who developed a formula of handouts and fanning long time racial fears, along with intimidation and general harassment, to win the 2014 and then 2018 and nearly grab the 2022 elections.

In their determination to wrest political control from FijiFirst in the 2022 election, NFP decided early on to just come out and declare an alliance with People’s Alliance. In previous elections, they had danced around the subject but ended up getting caught with a perceived association anyway. Stuck with the dreaded “Rabuka” Biman Prasad found, as Jai Ram Reddy did before him, Indo Fijian voters can forgive a lot, but that name is seared across their political memory.

Despite a significant and creative charm offensive from Rabuka, the Indo Fijian voters turned away again in 2022 leaving NFP, once again, stranded with a hodge podge of support from some disgruntled Indo Fijians and a more educated urbanised group of voters who were determined to vote against FijiFirst but couldn’t vote for Rabuka. This left the party comfortably over the 5% threshold but still in single figures.

Where to now? Well, it depends on where the Indo Fijian vote turns and that will be determined partly by where FijiFirst sits in 2026, more on that in a future column. At present, on the plus side, the NFP can hope that in a free Fiji, Indo Fijian voters might feel a little more comfortable spreading their vote around and look to the NFP as incumbent members of the Coalition Government in the next elections.

Junior members of Coalition Governments the world over have found incumbency can be a blessing but more often it is a curse. While they have been given several senior portfolios including the all-powerful Ministry of Finance and their Ministers are shining in a Cabinet of mixed ability, they have and will be stuck with decisions that their potential supporters aren’t comfortable with.

The Indo Fijian community has in the past shifted on mass as they did for Chaudhry and the FLP in 1987 and then later in 1999 and for the FijiFirst but they remain a complex mix of competing

groups. For a start they are declining in numbers and ageing thanks to a combination of low birth rates and migration. Then you need to consider the fault lines that remain between Hindus and Muslims, South Indians, and North, with the divisions that potentially split those communities as well. In earlier times, these revealed themselves in bitter splits within the NFP. Anyone remember the Dove and Flower factions?

Fiji politics in general is transactional i.e. what’s in it for me…. Free bus fares, free school fees etc and of course in the past our most expensive social welfare scheme - the guaranteed price of sugar cane. There has been one issue that has galvanised the Indo Fijian vote…. Yes you guessed it, Rabuka! This reflects the underlying fear of iTaukei ethno-nationalism and lack of a sense of security in Fiji.

So, for NFP the dilemma is, what to do for 2026. Assuming Rabuka still leads the People’s Alliance in 2026 (see our previous columns) the NFP will need significant policy wins to take to the Indo Fijian electorate in 2026. At present they can claim to have delivered media freedom, Girmit Day, removal of student loans and a back-to-school handout. Freedom, well for ordinary voters they won’t relate as FF looked after them well, Girmit Day symbolic but ???, the handouts, hard to compete with the way FF handed out the goodies (that we are paying for now!!). In addition, they potentially will be up once more against Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum who has in many ways copied Mahendra Chaudhry’s combative strong man style that has always attracted the Indo Fijian voter.

Up against the NFP are the pro iTaukei changes that send a shiver down the collective spine of the Indo Fijian community, starting with the Great Council of Chiefs. You may wonder why the concern as the GCC doesn’t directly affect them. This issue comes up repeatedly around Indo Fijian grog bowls and is perceived as a threat. It relates to memories of 2000 and that security issue we discussed earlier, and it doesn’t sit well.

The return of elderly, in some cases with an ethno-nationalist past, iTaukei leaders to various positions of power doesn’t help. The fact that SODELPA appear to be able to bully their way into these positions while the more senior, in terms of parliamentary seats, NFP is seen to be succumbing isn’t lost on this electorate.

That said, the Indo Fijian voter is looking first for security and then, like everyone else, competent delivery of services in particular health and education. Failure in these areas and their vote is up for grabs if they haven’t voted already by migrating!

Returning to the party, itself the NFP needs to re-examine how it is connecting with the Indo Fijian community. They won’t get this vote with same old same old. Currently it would seem the party “brain trust” is dominated by ex-unionists who seem out of touch and obsessed with old feuds and more recent figures like Richard Naidu who are unable to connect with this core voter base. The Union connection represented by Agni Deo Singh has struggled to deliver votes and shows no sign of recovering.

There is a need to introduce fresh blood into the leadership. Leaders able to present a vision that secures a place for Indo Fijians in Fiji. Sashi Kiran is a beginning, and we believe she has started networking through the various religious and community organisations that provide important pathways to change. She presents an interesting but challenging vision for Indo Fijians through her plan to integrate Indo Fijians into the traditional iTaukei system via Rewa, but this is going to take a long time to take root. To win the Indo Fijian vote in 2026 she needs help,

and the proposed municipal elections might provide a pathway for new leaders who can connect to the core of the Indo Fijian community to emerge.

What you may ask of Lenora Qereqeretabua and Pio Tikoduadua - both have held their respective parliamentary positions through two elections, but their support base is centred around that small fringe urban westernised vote. While they have proved themselves excellent performers, Pio Tikoduadua in particular, in Parliament and Cabinet if the Indo Fijian vote turns they may find themselves swamped under the current voting system.

As we said last week the honeymoon is over and the countdown to 2026 has begun tick tock tick tock.

Opinion Note

Long time fijivillage users may remember the Yellow Bucket opinion column that ran in the years leading up to the 2006 coup. Well following the repeal of the MIDA Act we are delighted to announce that YB is back!

The Yellow Bucket is something of a Communications Fiji Ltd institution…. Yes it exists…. A real Yellow Bucket that the CFL team and visitors gather around after work to drink grog and discuss the day. Legend has it that every Fiji Prime Minister has at some stage enjoyed a bilo from the bucket.

The YB column ran from 2003 to early 2007 when it was shut down under extreme pressure from the military government. Later the MIDA Act specifically forbade any use of nom de plums or pseudonyms requiring every published article to have a named author.

So why the pseudonym. The YB column was and will continue to be a product of group thinking and discussion, so it would be impossible and a little unfair to attribute it to a single author.

It will continue to provide fact-based opinion offering context to the complex and constantly unfolding story, that is our home Fiji. We stress, FACT BASED…. No rush to judgement here ….. Our aim will be to run weekly but that could change depending on the situation.

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