AFRICANGLOBE – Thousands of Fijians begin voting for the first time in eight years on Wednesday in an election that promises to restore democracy to the south Pacific nation of 900,000.
Questions remain about how far the military ruler, Voreqe Bainimarama, has tilted the outcome in his favour. Bainimarama is running as a candidate and polls indicate his party is 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 the parliament’s 50 seats under Fiji’s new proportional system. Anything less could force Bainimarama to share power after years of ruling by decree.
If the election is deemed fair by international observers it will likely wash away the last remaining punitive measures put up by western countries after Bainimarama first seized power in a 2006 coup. 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 longtime critic of the regime, said the international community was so eager to reward Fiji for holding the election that it was willing to overlook Bainimarama’s troubling past.
Lal said that included years of strict media censorship, ensuring he was portrayed favourably, as well as human rights violations and meddling with the constitution to ensure he and other coup leaders would remain immune from prosecution.
“They [other countries] all realise the process will be flawed,” he said. “But as long as Fiji goes through the motions reasonably OK, then that’s fine.”
Bainimarama has gained support after making improvements such as fixing roads, an important point to many in a country with limited services. He is favoured among the large minority whose ancestors came from India. Bainimarama’s coup was the fourth in 20 years and ethnic tensions played a big part in the unrest.
An indigenous Fijian, 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 indigenous Fijian leaders 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. “They’re telling the population they believe that all the citizenry are equal, yet they’re giving themselves immunity. Where’s the equality in that?”
Kepa has said she wants to return Fiji to peace and harmony after the turmoil of the coups. She expressed concern that voters in remote areas, who were required to vote early, appeared to have been disenfranchised because voting had taken place on different days than promised.
Wyatt Creech – a former New Zealand parliamentarian who is one of about 100 international observers posted to Fiji to determine whether the election is fair – said there had been problems and complaints on remote islands but nothing that appeared deliberate or fraudulent. “I have to emphasise that this is an extremely challenging place to hold an election,” he said. “There are places with poor communications, poor roads, villages that are very remote, and places where English is not strong.”
Some people had gone to extraordinary lengths to vote and the overall mood seemed positive, Creech 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 a meeting takes place 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,” said Commonwealth spokeswoman Victoria Holdsworth.