Fijians go to polls, seek to end 'coup culture'

The Pacific nation of Fiji will Wednesday hold its first elections in almost eight years, with voters urged to embrace democracy after decades of ethnic tensions and military meddling in civil affairs.

Suva: The Pacific nation of Fiji will Wednesday hold its first elections in almost eight years, with voters urged to embrace democracy after decades of ethnic tensions and military meddling in civil affairs.

The September 17 vote is considered pivotal to ending the archipelago's "coup culture", which saw four governments toppled between 1987 and 2006 amid instability stemming from tensions between indigenous Fijians and ethnic Indians.

After nearly eight years of authoritarian rule, 590,000 registered voters in the population of about 900,000 will have the chance to select from 262 candidates standing for election to a new 50-seat parliament set up under a constitution adopted in 2013.

A multinational observer group -- led by Australia, India, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea -- will monitor the poll to ensure it is free and fair.

Fiji's status as the largest and most economically powerful South Pacific island nation means the election matters not just to Fiji, but to neighbouring countries such as Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu.

The International Monetary Fund noted in its most recent assessment of Fiji that "successful elections and a smooth transition to reform-oriented democratic government could result in stronger confidence in the economy and higher capital inflows".

Yet rights groups such as Amnesty International say doubts remain about whether basic human rights are being honoured in Fiji, raising concerns the election could be a "democratic sham".

"There's a lot more to true democracy than simply holding an election," Amnesty's New Zealand executive director Grant Bayldon said.

"Freedom of speech, an independent media, rule of law, a constitution that respects human rights -- all are essential, and all have been under siege in Fiji since (Voreqe) Bainimarama took power in the December 2006 coup."

Bainimarama seized power against a volatile backdrop of divisions between indigenous Fijians and ethnic Indians descended from sugar plantation labourers shipped in by the British during the colonial era.

Indians, who form about 40 per cent of the population, traditionally dominated the economy while indigenous Fijians gravitated towards government and the military.

The balance was disturbed when Indians began to gain political power in the 1980s, prompting coups in May 1987, October 1987 and May 2000 by ultra-nationalists with military links determined to reassert indigenous control.

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