Voters in Fiji headed to the polls on Wednesday for the first time in eight years, following a decision by the South Pacific island nation’s military junta that the time was right for a transition back to democratic rule. Fiji, a tropical idyll about 3,200 km (2,000 miles) east of Australia, has suffered four coups since 1987, the latest in 2006 led by former army chief Voreqe “Frank” Bainimarama, whose Fiji First Party had a strong lead heading into the general election. Voters thronged to the polls, appearing ecstatic about once again choosing their leaders despite the spectre of security threats raised by the military and criticism of Bainimarama for using state media to drown out other parties. “I have waited for eight years to be part of this historic day. Everyone voting as … members of this place we call home,” Ramesh Chand told Reuters after casting his vote for Fiji First.
Bainimarama seized on a long-simmering rivalry between indigenous Fijian nationalists and minority ethnic Indians, the economically powerful descendants of labourers brought by the British to work sugarcane fields, to justify his coup in 2006.
In 2000, ethnic Fijians held the first Indo-Fijian prime minister hostage in Parliament for 56 days, in a coup that began with deadly riots in the streets of the capital, Suva.
Bainimarama quickly abolished traditional, rival power bases such as the ethnic Fijian Great Council of Chiefs and old electoral boundaries that roughly grouped people according to their ethnicity, to the advantage of majority ethnic Fijians. He also pushed steadily for equal rights, culminating in a 2013 constitution, helping him to consolidate his popularity among Indo-Fijians.