Fiji Begins Elections in Test of Their Troubled Democracy

Fiji Saturday began a weeklong election that could fuel more turmoil in this troubled and racially divided South Pacific democracy.

Voters were choosing between an ethnic Indian opposition leader whose previous rise to power sparked a coup and an indigenous Fijian incumbent who is struggling for power with the country's military chief.

Analysts have said a victory for caretaker Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase could mean continuing instability from his bitter dispute with military chief Commodore Frank Bainimarama. A win for Labour opposition leader Mahendra Chaudhry could provoke another coup.

The start of voting was delayed for up to three hours in 24 polling stations in the capital, Suva, because of late arrivals of ballots and electoral rolls, Elections Office Deputy Supervisor Semi Matalau said. Elsewhere, ballot boxes were being shipped under guard to the archipelago's 100 inhabited islands.

Matalau said there were no reports of voter intimidation or other disruptions in the contest to fill 71 parliamentary seats and elect a prime minister. The military had boosted security at key locations.

In 2000, armed Fijian nationalists — including some military special forces members — stormed parliament and took Chaudhry, Fiji's first ethnic-Indian prime minister, and other lawmakers hostage.

Bainimarama is widely credited with ending the coup without bloodshed. He declared martial law, appointed the indigenous Qarase as interim prime minister and eventually negotiated the hostages' release and the gunmen's surrender.

CountryWatch: Fiji

Coup leader George Speight and key accomplices were imprisoned for treason. But ethnic tensions remain high in Fiji and the plotters enjoy sympathy among many Fijians. Two military-led coups in 1987 sought to cement power for indigenous Fijians.

Qarase's campaign included veiled warnings of possible unrest if an ethnic-Indian prime minister is elected again.

Chaudhry's Indian-majority Labour Party campaigned against Qarase's government by blaming it for the weakening economy.

Bainimarama has accused Qarase of leniency toward the imprisoned coup plotters. Qarase has tried and failed to get President Ratu Josefa Iloilo to fire Bainimarama.

Voter Andi Sukana said Qarase's indigenous Fijian-dominated Soqosoqo Duavata Ni Lewenivanua party was best suited to handle race issues.

"It's a multiracial government and its policy is best," she said while waiting to cast her ballot in Suva. "It's good for everybody and in the past five years ... They've brought Fiji back from the mess of the 2000 coup."

Qarase was returned to power at the last elections in 2001. Heading into the election, Qarase's party held 37 of Parliament's 71 seats and Labour had 28.

Voting lasts for a week because of the challenges of getting ballot boxes to and from remote areas. Results will not be known until after counting starts on May 15.

Indigenous Fijians account for some 51 percent of the population of about 906,000 in this nation 1,864 miles northeast of Sydney, Australia. Indians are about 44 percent of the population.