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Fijians vote eight years after coup

Thousands of Fijians got their first chance to vote in eight years in an election that promises to finally restore democracy to the South Pacific nation of 900,000.

Yet as polls opened this morning, plenty of questions remain about how far military ruler Voreqe Bainimarama has tilted the outcome in his favour.

He is running as a candidate and polls indicate his party is by far the most popular of the seven contesting the election.

The question appears to be not whether his Fiji First party will receive the most votes, but whether it will gain an outright majority of Parliament's 50 seats under Fiji's new proportional system.

Anything less could force Mr Bainimarama to share power, not something he is familiar with after years of ruling by decree.

If the election is deemed fair by international observers, it will probably wash away the last remaining barriers put up by Western countries after Mr Bainimarama first seized power in a 2006 coup.

And a stable government afterwards could see international investors return.

"This is a historic election," said Anil Kumar, a Suva taxi driver. "I'm excited that I will be able to cast my vote. I'm looking forward to it."

But Brij Lal, a professor at the Australian National University and long-time critic of the regime, said the international community is so eager to reward Fiji for holding the election that it is willing to overlook Mr Bainimarama's troubling past.

He said that includes years of strict media censorship which ensured he was portrayed favourably, human rights violations, and meddling with the constitution to ensure he and other coup leaders would remain immune from prosecution.

He said many countries want to give Fiji a thumbs up and move on.

"They all realise the process will be flawed. But as long as Fiji goes through the motions reasonably OK, then that's fine."

There is no question Mr Bainimarama enjoys wide support. In recent years he has made big improvements to the roads, an important point to many in a country with limited services.

He is favoured among the large minority whose ancestors came from India. His coup was the fourth in 20 years and ethnic tensions played a big part in the unrest.

An indigenous Fijian, Mr Bainimarama has promised to create a more egalitarian society.

He has not set aside any seats for indigenous Fijians in the new Parliament and has disbanded the powerful Great Council of Chiefs, a group of powerful indigenous Fijians who mostly inherited their positions and enjoyed a privileged status in island life.

His main opponent is the Sodelpa Party, led by Ro Teimumu Kepa, a chief and former politician.

"We believe in democracy, they came in through treason. That's a major difference between us," she said.

If the election is considered fair by the observers, Fiji could be welcomed back into the Commonwealth group of nations as early as this month when they meet in New York.

"The Commonwealth has valued having Fiji as a full member in the past and looks forward to reinstating Fiji fully back in the family upon its credible transition back to civilian, constitutional democracy," Commonwealth spokeswoman Victoria Holdsworth said.


From Belfast Telegraph