Election underway in Fiji

The nation remains split due to tensions between indigenous Fijian majority and ethnic Indian minority.

india Updated: May 06, 2006 15:31 IST

Fijians began voting on Saturday in weeklong elections to choose between an incumbent who is locked in a power struggle with the country's military chief and an Opposition leader whose previous rise to power prompted opponents to stage a coup.

The contest to fill 71 parliamentary seats and elect a prime minister is a test of the South Pacific nation's troubled democracy, which has weathered three coups in the past decade and remains split by tensions between the indigenous Fijian majority and large ethnic Indian minority.

Analysts have expressed concern that a victory for caretaker Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase could mean continuing instability wrought by a bitter dispute he has with military chief Commodore Frank Bainimarama, while a win for Labour opposition leader Mahendra Chaudhry could provoke another coup.

The start of voting was delayed for up three hours in 24 polling stations in the capital, Suva, because of late arrivals of ballots and electoral rolls, Elections Office Deputy Supervisor Semi Matalau said.

Elsewhere, ballot boxes were being shipped under guard to the one-third of the archipelago's 300 islands that are inhabited. Matalau said there were no reports of voter intimidation or other disruptions that had prompted the military to boost security at key places.

At election stations in Suva, some voters nominated racial divide as a key obstacle to Fiji's development.

Voter Andi Sukana said Qarase's indigenous Fijian-dominated Soqosoqo Duavata Ni Lewenivanua was best suited to handle race issues.

"It's a multiracial government and its policy is best," she said while waiting to cast her ballot in Suva. "It's good for everybody and in the past five years ... they've brought Fiji back from the mess of the 2000 coup."

Another voter, Arlene Griffen, said Qarase's government had proven self-interested.

She was among hundreds waiting in line to vote when Qarase entered the polling station and strode to the front to cast his ballot.

"Some of us don't appreciate him jumping to the head of the queue like that," Griffen said.

"That's indicative of his government's attitude of looking after themselves first."

Bainimarama has accused Qarase, an indigenous Fijian, of leniency toward imprisoned plotters involved in a 2000 coup.

Qarase has tried and failed to get President Ratu Josefa Iloilo to fire Bainimarama. Bainimarama is widely credited with ending the 2000 coup without bloodshed by declaring martial law after armed Fijian nationalists stormed parliament and took Chaudhry, Fiji's first ethnic-Indian prime minister, and other lawmakers hostage.

Bainimarama appointed Qarase as interim prime minister and eventually negotiated the hostages' release and the gunmen's surrender.

Coup leader George Speight and key accomplices were imprisoned for treason. But ethnic tensions remain high in Fiji and the plotters enjoy sympathy among many Fijians.

Two military-led coups in 1987 sought to cement power for indigenous Fijians. Qarase said he has a strategy to end the dispute with Bainimarama if he is returned to power, but declined to give details.

"The tension is still there, but we are determined to resolve it when we get back after the general elections," Qarase told reporters.

First Published: May 06, 2006 12:20 IST