With the election of Sitiveni Rabuka as the new party leader for SODELPA, we have the brief benefit of hindsight to carry out a formative assessment of the leadership role of Ro Teimumu Kepa the current Leader of the Opposition.
Ro Teimumu Kepa
I say ‘formative’ because Ro Teimumu will continue as Opposition Leader until elections are held in 2018. In the Fiji Times of June 25, 2016 she notes “that I am also leaving my options open for any future ideas in moving forward." The Fiji Sun of October 22nd 2015 reported that Rabuka’s name first emerged as a replacement for Ro Teimumu at that stage. The Sun article further noted that Rabuka “would feel more comfortable leading the party into 2018 without Ro Teimumu in the party.”
Ro Teimumu was not happy with the selection of Rabuka and she noted that it was clearly stated in their management meeting that his appointment would cause an exodus of thousands of party members. Fijivillage.com also reported on June 26th 2016 that she is of the view that Rabuka will now face the challenge of trying to bring back those who have left because of his appointment as Party Leader. This attempt at unifying the party she feels will be his main challenge before the 2018 General Elections. She also hopes that Rabuka will engage with the SODELPA Youth Wing.
In hindsight it is clear that when Ro Teimumu was elected leader pf SODELPA in March 2014 there were pockets of resistance and dissenters who felt that she was not the appropriate choice. Since the general election was looming and logistical preparations had to be undertaken quickly, these differences were papered over. Even when she was appointed Opposition leader on Oct 6th, 2014 there was a vocal group of SODELPA parliamentarians who did not fully support her.
Her tenure as party leader had been marked by bitter infighting from a faction that wanted a change in leadership. One subtle sign of this was the disparaging remark that the election of Rabuka as party leader was more transparent then her election in March 2014. Another sign was the comment by Rabuka in the Fiji Times of June 26 2016 that he “felt that the excursion was not done well in the 2014 election. I can say, my observation, that while the party constitution and platforms are good, we have not achieved the desired results and that will be my input, making suggestion on how to execute the orders given to us by the platform of the party."
Through 2015 there seemed to be on going conflicts between the SODEPA Party Office and the Opposition Office under Ro Teimumu’s supervision. The fight was between the old guard and the reformers. The conflict reached its climax in the fourth quarter of 2015.
The first inkling of trouble came in an October 10, 2015 report in the Fiji Sun that quoted SODELPA’s Mosese Bulitavo as asserting that. “The chiefly system is flawed and steeped in a culture of treachery, deception and corruption.” This appeared to be a veiled reference to the need to change the party leader.
The Fiji Sun reported on October 22nd 2015 that the conflict centred around the supposedly “haphazard way in which Ro Teimumu’s tour of the North was organized resulting in an embarrassing situation in Savusavu.”
In October 2015 details were also finalised to advertise the position of party leader to replace Ro Teimumu. The discourse around this issue came at the behest of five SODELPA MPs who filed a petition calling on the management board to conduct an inquiry to examine issues raised in the Gaunavinaka Report. The report had been critical of Ro Teimumu’s leadership and the way the Opposition Office was being run.
There was a discourse in SODELPA that advocated a lower profile for chiefs in politics to avoid controversy. There was also concern that Rabuka might form a new political party. He had been active in Cakaudrove supporting rugby clubs and communities. He had said: “I am no longer interested in that (SODELPA) party, that door has already been closed and I have no intention to become the leader of the party.” The thinking in October 2015 (by former SVT supporters in the party) was that Rabuka would be an appropriate replacement for Ro Teimumu given that she had expressed that she may not be available for re-election in 2018.
Political observers noted that it was almost an impossible task for Ro Teimumu to harmonise the ideological divide of the old conservative guards who felt that the iTaukei were more equal than other groups in Fiji and the reformers who wanted a multiracial model. It was felt that she tried to build consensus by avoiding conflicts. The thinking amongst some observers is that she should have confronted the dissenters and stood her ground. In other words, she needed to make unpleasant decisions for the good of the party. If that meant she had to be direct and confrontational then she should have done so. Her peaceful demeanour was seen as a flaw. Observers noted that it seemed embarrassing that a party leader was chosen 2 years before the 2018 general election (while she is still Leader of the Opposition. Hopefully Rabuka will be gracious and not undercut her role in Parliament.
Some observers noted that Ro Teimumu should have been allowed to develop the party to the 2018 elections. She had amassed 49,485 votes to Rabuka’s 236 received a decade earlier in a previous general election. She had developed a good rapport with young voters and could have widened the ideological platform of the party. She was trying to provide space for Fijians to join her predominantly iTaukei party. This may take a back seat as Rabuka tries to consolidate support from those with similar ideologies.Only time will tell whether replacing her with a former Prime Minister was a wise decision!