Thousands of Fijians got their first chance to vote in eight years on Wednesday in an election that promises to finally restore democracy to the South Pacific nation of 900,000. Military strongman Voreqe Bainimarama, who has ruled Fiji since he seized control in a 2006 coup, is the frontrunner. He is popular, thanks in part to his focus on social programmes, increased infrastructure spending and a crackdown on the media. In early counting, Bainimarama’s Fiji First party had 59.2% of the vote with 804 of the 2,025 polling stations processed, according to official results reported by the Fiji Times newspaper. Its closest rival, the Sodelpa Party, had 28.1%. After casting his ballot, Bainimarama was asked whether he would accept the outcome if he lost. “I’m not going to lose. I will win. You ask that question to the other party,” he said. Then he added, “Of course we will accept the election results. That is what the democratic process is all about.”
If the election is deemed fair by international observers, it it likely to remove the last remaining barriers put up by western countries after Bainimarama first seized power in 2006. A stable government after the election could also 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.”
Bainimarama’s nearest rival, Ro Teimumu Kepa, leader of Sodelpa, said she and her candidates have done the best job they could: “We leave it to the people to decide.” Bainimarama, an indigenous Fijian, won favour by improving services: he has made education free and spent tens of millions of dollars improving the roads.Some see his biggest achievement as reducing ethnic tensions, which have been a big factor in the four coups Fiji has endured since 1987.
However, some human rights groups have accused Bainimarama of torturing prisoners and repressing opponents. They say he’s carefully cultivated his own image by controlling the nation’s media, and has looked after his own interests by meddling with the constitution, ensuring he and other coup leaders are immune from prosecution.