Fiji election: Divina Loloma hopes to be first transgender MP, Frank Bainimarama says he will respect result

Divina Loloma has vowed to represent the most vulnerable Fijians if elected in this week’s national poll. The transgender woman is vying to become the country’s first openly gender diverse MP.
“As a transgender woman I feel deep down … the power of representation, no matter who you are, is able to combat the many problems and issues we face in the country today,” she told SBS News.
Polls in the Pacific nation’s general election closed on Wednesday evening, ending a strict three-day media blackout where no reporting was allowed.

Win or lose, Ms Loloma says she ran in the hope her story would inspire other Fijians to speak out about discrimination. The candidate for the National Federation says she understands all too well the feelings of being isolated and marginalized.

After going through her gender transition in Sydney, where she was living in the 1980s after a violent military coup in Fiji, she says she was shunned when she returned home as a woman. A local newspaper took pictures of him and the headline “Fiji’s first sex change” was plastered on the front page.
Almost 30 years later, she wants to introduce laws banning hate speech if elected.
“The problem here is the fear, the fear and the struggles of discrimination and stigma in the country.”

“One of the policies I would like to introduce is to stop the violence. There should be no hate speech. I think we need to get the country back to its safest state.”

Fiji’s top players

Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama has led Fiji for 16 years after seizing power in a military coup in 2006. The retired navy commodore and former commander of Fiji’s armed forces rewrote the Pacific nation’s constitution and was democratically elected in a landslide in 2014.

He again led his party Fiji First to an election victory in 2018, but by a narrow margin. Bainimarama has just maintained a majority government with 50.02% of the vote.

A man in an orange patterned shirt walks out with people around him.

Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama after voting in Wednesday’s general election. Source: AAP / Mick Tsikas

The 68-year-old now faces the same candidate, 74-year-old Sitiveni Rabuka. The People’s Alliance leader was also a former coup plotter, first seizing power in 1987 when he led two coups after the election of the country’s first Indo-Fijian-dominated government. The acquisitions reaffirmed iTaukei indigenous leadership in Fiji.

He was democratically elected in 1992 and served as Prime Minister until 1999.
Fiji has a turbulent history with four coups since gaining independence from British rule in 1970, so it remains to be seen whether these elections will lead to a peaceful transition of power.

When asked by SBS News on Wednesday, “if you don’t win, will you respect the result?” Mr Bainimarama said: “Of course,” before saying, “don’t they have any intelligent journalists from Australia who will come and ask me better questions than that?”

Bainimarama has held two democratic elections, with international observers suggesting the polls were “free”. But both times he won the vote, so the democratic decision of the former coup maker has not yet been tested.

Rabuka also said he would respect this week’s vote. He has publicly apologized for the coups and spent much of the campaign emphasizing that he is a changed man and that he will respect minority rights this time. Indian Fijians make up about a third of the voting population.

In addition, it has an advantage that it did not have in 2018; an alliance with the third party of the National Federation. It is this promised coalition that analyst Lucy Albiston, of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank, believes could force a change of government.

“It may be what gets them over the line to become government this time, but either way it’s going to be a tight race,” he said.

LGBTIQ+ rights in Fiji

In the 1990s, Fiji became the second country in the world to constitutionally enshrine protections for LGBTIQ+ people. These rights were retained when the constitution was rewritten in 2013.
But Isikeli Vulavou, the director of the Fijian Rainbow Pride Foundation, said “there is a huge gap between the law and practice”.

“Many LGBTIQ+ people in Fiji still face a lot of social discrimination, some are not so lucky because they experience it in their own families,” he said.

Davina Loloma at an outdoor market

Davina Loloma wants to represent the most vulnerable people in Fiji. Source: SBS News / Lucy Murray

Vulavou said entrenched beliefs can be further fueled by those in power, pointing to comments made by Mr. Bainimarama in 2016. Mr. Bainimarama said same-sex marriage would not be legalized while he was in charge and

Two-thirds of Fijians identify as Christian, and while some churches have expressed support for marriage equality, most have not. The Pacific Council of Churches said there is no “one-size-fits-all approach” for its denominations and any changes to the laws require further discussion.

Current military commander General Jone Kalouniwai, in what he described as his “most important speech ever” said he will not interfere in the democratic process this week.

“Some of you may be happy with the result, others may not. Whatever your post-election disposition, this is a time to honor the democratic process by reflecting the outcome,” he told the assembled soldiers.

People in line

Voters line up to have their say in Fiji’s poll. Source: SBS News / Lucy Murray

This speech was carried across the country and was important, said Tess Newton Cain, head of the Pacific Center at Griffith University.

“Fiji is a highly militarized society, the military has a very high profile … his words will be heeded, not only by members of the military, but by society at large,” he said.

A man inside wearing a red and blue patterned shirt

Fiji’s former prime minister Sitiveni Rabuka hopes to win the election. Source: SBS News / Lucy Murray

Dr Cain believes Bainimarama will not try to hold on to power through undemocratic means, having worked hard over the past decade to “regain and secure personal legitimacy” on the international stage as a climate advocate.

“Given his age and stage in life, I think he would be reluctant to give that up,” he said.

Ms Albiston agrees that a military coup is unlikely, but more “quiet” means of maintaining power could come into play, including using the “legal system to bring about elections”. he said.
The Bainimarama government created the current court system and has many allies in the judiciary.
In the event of a non-democratic outcome, Ms Albiston said Australian leaders would have to walk a tightrope between upholding democratic principles and maintaining a close diplomatic alliance.
Geopolitical tensions in the Pacific are already high earlier this year and Kiribati’s decision to withdraw from the Pacific Islands Forum.
Fiji’s general election results are expected on Thursday, with final numbers on Sunday.
LGBTIQ+ Australians seeking mental health support can contact QLife on 1800 184 527 or visit . also has a list of support services.

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