Explainer: What Frank Bainimarama’s jail sentence could mean for Fiji politics?

The former Fiji prime minister Frank Bainimarama was handed a one-year jail sentence in the Fiji High Court on Thursday for perverting the course of justice.

It is a seemingly minor sentence but one that could have big consequences for Fiji’s political future and close the chapter on one of the most controversial and influential figures in Fijian and Pacific politics over the past two decades.

Here’s what it may mean for Fiji’s politics.

Rise to power

Bainimarama came to power after overthrowing the Laisenia Qarase-led government in 2006.

From 2006 to 2014, he led the country through an interim administration.

In 2013, he delivered a new constitution – the nation’s fourth – regarded as a Fiji Military Forces-backed document, which proclaimed the equality of all Fijian citizens, under a secular state, with a government elected under an open list proportional representation system, without ethnic communal rolls and reserved seats.

He won the 2014 elections to become a democratically elected prime minister under the 2013 Constitution, and again in 2018. He lost the 2022 election after the three opposition parties decided to form a coalition.

Political implications

At the time of his conviction, Bainimarama was the leader of FijiFirst – the largest political party in the country’s parliament.

He contested the 2022 election as incumbent prime minister and is almost single-handedly responsible for their numbers in parliament securing over 29 percent of the ballots cast in the election.

In contrast, the current Prime Minister and People’s Alliance Party leader Sitiveni Rabuka polled only 16.5 percent of ballots cast and currently sits at the head of a shaky three-party coalition with the balance of power provided by the three-member kingmaker party Social Democratic Liberal Party and the five-member National Federation Party.

Fiji Parliament makeup:

  • Fiji First Party: 26
  • People’s Alliance Party: 21
  • National Federation Party: 5
  • Social Democratic Liberal Party: 3

According to Fiji’s 2013 Constitution, Bainimarama’s conviction rules him out of contesting an election for the next eight years.

This means, if any forthcoming appeals are unsuccessful, he will be out of the running for the upcoming 2026 election as well as the next poll in 2034.

End of an era?

A Fijian academic in New Zealand, Steven Ratuva, said Bainimarama’s custodial sentence is “significant because for the FijiFirst Party it might signal a weakening of power going into the future”.

“Secondly, its probably significant as well in terms of giving out the message that coups do not work in the long run in terms of things might swing back and the consequences of coups could impact could impact on those who carry them out.

“And thirdly, it shows that Fiji politics is very, very dynamic and for those who wield power at some point the law can be used against them so significant in three ways.”

Contradictory rulings not conducive to healthy judiciary

Victoria University professor of comparative politics Jon Fraenkel said contradictory rulings between courts in the case of Bainimarama were not conducive to a healthy judiciary.

Fraenkel said having judges and magistrates with competing loyalties is not a good look for the country’s legal system.

“There is a problem with the spats that are obviously going on behind the scenes between the magistrates and the acting chief justice this isn’t healthy. Better to have the judges sitting on the appeal that are making decisions not based on any kind of personal loyalties or affinities or vendettas or recriminations.”

Appeal pending

Speaking to local media on the High Court steps, Bainimarama and Qiliho’s lawyer Devanesh Sharma said he would be filing an application for bail pending an appeal.

Asked if he had spoken to his clients, Sharma said they were very tough.

“Remember they have been in worse situations than this.

“Its all part of a process, they appeal they can win or lose, we appeal we can win or lose and that’s the beauty of the law,” Sharma said.

There are two higher courts they can appeal to – the Appeal Court and the Supreme Court.

According to the news on Radio New Zealand

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