SUVA, Fiji – There was excitement among thousands of voters and relief from the international community Wednesday as Fijians cast ballots in a landmark election they hope will end more than a quarter-century of political turmoil and eight years of autocratic rule. But democracy may not have much of a new look to it.
Military strongman Voreqe Bainimarama, who has ruled this sunny South Pacific nation since he seized control in a 2006 coup, is the front-runner. He's popular in Fiji thanks in part to his focus on social programs, increased infrastructure spending and a crackdown on the media.
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."
The 100 or so international election observers reported no problems by the time polling closed at 6 p.m. In the morning, voters lined up at polling stations, with just over half a million of the nation's 900,000 citizens registered to vote.
The international community is prepared to drop remaining sanctions once Fiji officially restores democracy, including returning it to full membership among the Commonwealth group of nations.
Moti Ram, 73, arrived at a Suva polling station early with his whole family. "We wanted our votes to count," he said.
Abele Tubaba, from the village of Koronatoga, said he hoped whoever wins will improve development in remote areas.
"We struggle to find markets for our root crops, grog and seafood," he said, referring to a potent traditional Fijian drink. "We hope the new government brings better things for us."
Polls indicate Bainimarama's Fiji First party will comfortably win the most votes. Supporters say this reflects a job well done, while detractors say he's seeking to legitimize his treasonous power grab and years of human rights abuses.
His nearest rival, Ro Teimumu Kepa, leader of the Sodelpa Party, said she and her candidates have done the best job they could: "We leave it to the people to decide."
Bainimarama won favor with many Fijians by improving services. He's made education free and spent tens of millions of dollars improving the roads, albeit much of it with money borrowed from China. And the economy is showing signs of life, growing by 4.6 percent last year, according to government figures.
Some see his biggest achievement as reducing ethnic tensions, which have been a big factor in the four coups Fiji has endured since 1987.
An indigenous Fijian, Bainimarama is paradoxically most popular with the large minority whose ancestors come from India. That's because he's ended preferential indigenous representation in the Parliament and abolished the Great Council of Chiefs, a group of powerful indigenous Fijians who enjoyed a privileged status in island life.
Human rights groups say Bainimarama has tortured prisoners and repressed 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.
"We believe in democracy. They came in through treason. That's a major difference between us," said Kepa, herself a highly ranked indigenous chief. "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?"
Brij Lal, a professor at the Australian National University, said the international community is so eager to reward Fiji for holding the election that it's willing to overlook how Bainimarama gained power and held on to it.
"They all realize the process will be flawed," he said. "But as long as Fiji goes through the motions reasonably OK, then that's fine."
While Bainimarama's party appears assured of gaining the most votes of the seven parties contesting the election, it may not cross the 50 percent threshold needed to rule outright in the Parliament, where the seats will be allocated proportionally based on the number of votes received.
Anything less than an outright majority would put Bainimarama in an unfamiliar position: He would have to form a coalition with at least one other party, and share power.
Perry reported from Wellington, New Zealand.