, Fiji, Sept 18 – Coup leader Voreqe Bainimarama was Thursday on the verge of sweeping a historic vote to become Fiji’s first elected leader in eight years, as international observers gave the ballot a stamp of approval.
With 70 percent of the vote counted following Wednesday’s poll, Bainimarama’s Fiji First Party had 60.1 percent, well clear of its nearest rival, the Social Democratic Liberal Party (Sodelpa) on 26.7.
“This was a credible election,” said a statement from the 92-member panel drawn from 13 countries around the world as well as the European Union.
“While counting is ongoing and the results are yet to be finalised, we assess that the outcome is on track to broadly represent the will of the Fijian voters.”
The election was conducted “in an atmosphere of calm, with an absence of electoral misconduct or evident intimidation.”
Pacific regional powerhouses Australia and New Zealand, who led global condemnation of Bainimarama following the coup, described the ballot as a “significant event”.
Factfile on the Fiji elections, first since the 2006 military coup
© AFP Graphic –
“All early indications are that the conditions were in place for the people of Fiji to exercise their right to vote freely,” New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully said.
His Australian counterpart Julie Bishop said Canberra “looks forward to working with the new Fiji Government when it is formed.”
Although Bainimarama was accused of human rights abuses and the Pacific nation subjected to international sanctions after he seized control in a 2006 coup, Brij Lal, a Fiji political analyst based at the Australian National University, said the outcome was no surprise.
“He had all the advantages of incumbency, name recognition, a public profile, media on his side, campaigning on the public purse, and a desire on the part of the voters for stability, which he promised,” Lal told AFP.
But despite the country returning to democracy, the military maintain a strong presence and opposition parties cancelled an election review planned during the day after soldiers turned up.
Sodelpa and other opposition parties were to have met Thursday at a Suva hotel to discuss their response to Fiji First’s overwhelming lead.
An election supervisor counts votes after the poll booths closed in the Fiji elections in the capital Suva on September 17, 2014
© AFP Peter Parks
However, the meeting was cancelled at the last minute when soldiers arrived at the venue.
“This meeting cannot go ahead because there are two military personnel in the hotel,” prominent Fiji political analyst Wadan Narsey told reporters.
– Military on standby –
Fiji’s military commander Brigadier-General Mosese Tikoitoga said before the election the armed forces would be on standby until a new government is sworn in to ensure “the security, defence and well-being” of the Pacific island nation.
Bainimarama had repeatedly delayed a return to democracy while he reworked Fiji’s constitution, developed the economy and, as an indigenous Fijian he made himself popular with the Indian minority by focussing on easing ethnic tensions.
Although there has been no word from him since voting began, the Fiji Sun, regarded as a mouthpiece of the outgoing military regime, said he was “happy with the general elections results coming in. But he was waiting for the final results before commenting further.”
Complete results are not expected until the weekend, but the ongoing count indicated Bainimarama’s Fiji First would rule without the need of coalition support.
About half a million of Fiji’s 900,000 population were registered to vote in the first election since he led a bloodless coup in 2006, the fourth time the Fijian government had been overthrown in less than 20 years.
Election supervisor Mohammed Saneem said there was a high turnout as voters walked, drove and even rode on horseback to about 1,000 polling stations across the 300 islands.
Police said the vote was trouble-free and fears of violence proved unfounded.
The four coups between 1987 and 2006 were largely due to tensions between indigenous Fijians and ethnic Indians and when Bainimarama seized power he vowed to end the racial divisions.
His authoritarian regime did bring stability, but in the process tore up the constitution, sacked the judiciary and tightened media censorship, prompting Fiji’s suspension from the Commonwealth and the Pacific Islands Forum.
The restrictions he imposed have been relaxed and Australia and New Zealand lifted sanctions earlier this year to encourage the return to democracy, although Amnesty International still has concerns about abuses its says were perpetrated by Bainimarama.