WELLINGTON, New Zealand – Thousands of Fijians got their first chance to vote in eight years Wednesday in an election that promises to finally restore democracy to the South Pacific nation of 900,000.
Yet as polls opened Wednesday morning, plenty of questions remain about how far military ruler Voreqe Bainimarama has tilted the outcome in his favor. Bainimarama is running as a candidate and polls indicate his party is by far the most popular of the seven contesting the election.
The question appears to be not whether his Fiji First party will receive the most votes, but whether it will gain an outright majority of Parliament's 50 seats under Fiji's new proportional system. Anything less could force Bainimarama to share power, not something he's familiar with after years of ruling by decree.
If the election is deemed fair by international observers, it will likely wash away the last remaining barriers put up by Western countries after Bainimarama first seized power in a 2006 coup. And a stable government afterward could 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."
But Brij Lal, a professor at the Australian National University and longtime critic of the regime, said the international community is so eager to reward Fiji for holding the election that it's willing to overlook Bainimarama's troubling past.
Lal said that includes years of strict media censorship which ensured he was portrayed favorably, human rights violations, and meddling with the constitution to ensure he and other coup leaders would remain immune from prosecution.
He said many countries want to give Fiji a thumbs up and move on.
"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."
There's no question Bainimarama enjoys wide support. In recent years he's made big improvements to the roads, an important point to many in a country with limited services.
He's favored among the large minority whose ancestors came from India. Bainimarama's coup was the fourth in 20 years and ethnic tensions played a big part in the unrest.
An indigenous Fijian, Bainimarama has promised to create a more egalitarian society. He hasn't set aside any seats for indigenous Fijians in the new Parliament and has disbanded the powerful Great Council of Chiefs, a group of powerful indigenous Fijians who mostly inherited their positions and enjoyed a privileged status in island life.
His main opponent is the Sodelpa Party, led by Ro Teimumu Kepa, a chief and former politician.
"We believe in democracy, they came in through treason. That's a major difference between us," she said in an interview. "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?"
Kepa said she wants to return Fiji to peace and harmony after all the turmoil of the coups. She said she's worried many voters in remote areas, who were required to vote early, appear to have been disenfranchised because voting has taken place on different days than promised.
Wyatt Creech, a former New Zealand lawmaker who is one of about 100 international observers posted to Fiji to determine whether the election is fair, said there have been problems and complaints on remote islands but nothing that appears deliberate or fraudulent.
"I have to emphasize that this is an extremely challenging place to hold an election," he said. "There are places with poor communications, poor roads, villages that are very remote, and places where English is not strong."
He said despite all that, some people have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure they get to vote and the overall mood seems particularly positive.
If the election is considered fair by the observers, Fiji could be welcomed back into the Commonwealth group of nations as early as this month when they meet in New York.
"The Commonwealth has valued having Fiji as a full member in the past and looks forward to reinstating Fiji fully back in the family upon its credible transition back to civilian, constitutional democracy," Commonwealth spokeswoman Victoria Holdsworth said in an email.
For many Fijians, the election will be a chance to finally have their say. If, that is, they can figure out their voting papers.
For some reason, election officials decided to place all the candidates on the ballot not by name, but by a number assigned to them. For one day, at least, Bainimarama won't be known as anything more than number 279.