Fiji coup leader heads for landmark poll victory

Coup leader Voreqe Bainimarama was poised Thursday to become Fiji`s first elected leader in eight years as provisional results gave him a commanding lead after historic elections.

Suva: Coup leader Voreqe Bainimarama was poised Thursday to become Fiji`s first elected leader in eight years as provisional results gave him a commanding lead after historic elections.

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.

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. 

Although Bainimarama has been accused of human rights abuses and the country 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 result 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.

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. 

Sodelpa and other opposition parties were to have met Thursday at a Suva hotel to discuss their response to Fiji First`s overwhelming lead.

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. 
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. 

There has been no word from Bainimarama since voting began and 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 early results indicated Bainimarama`s Fiji First would easily 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 some rode on horseback to about 1,000 polling stations around the country.

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 in recent years, and winning an election deemed free and fair by neutral observers would give his government the international recognition that has so far eluded it. 

Regional powers 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.

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