SUVA, Fiji – The monsoon rains have struck and the crowd remains huddled under a canopy, near plates of steaming food, as Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama (vo-REN-gay ba-nee-ma-RA-ma) strolls down the red carpet to open a waterfront picnic park in Fiji's capital, Suva. News photographers scamper around him, but only after it is announced that they are invited to record the event.
Seven years after seizing power in a military coup, the 59-year-old former naval officer, who also goes by the name Frank, has promised to hold democratic elections in this South Pacific island nation of 900,000. More than half a million Fijians have registered to vote, hoping to end a quarter-century of turmoil. The international community, which imposed political sanctions after the coup, has offered a cautious welcome.
But Bainimarama has raised questions by announcing he'll likely be a candidate. He's already acting like one. The day before the November picnic opening, he welcomed the arrival of a new Airbus plane, and the day after, he announced that Fijians will for the first time have free education through high school. His efforts to improve life for Fijians — and his own image — are partially fueled by American companies and Chinese money.
If he wins, will that make his leadership legitimate? If he thinks he'll lose, will he be willing to relinquish power and risk arrest, or scrap plans to hold elections by September?
Bainimarama's coup was among several in Fiji sparked by ethnic tensions between the indigenous majority and a large minority whose ancestors came from India. The instability prompted thousands of Indo-Fijians to leave, scared off international investors and stunted growth in a developing economy that relies on tourism, sugar, and remittances from abroad. Fiji has been careful, however, to minimize the impact on tourists, who still flock here to relax at idyllic beach resorts.
Many say ethnic tensions have eased, thanks in part to Bainimarama's promise to create a more egalitarian society, including a Parliament that doesn't have seats set aside for indigenous Fijians. Bainimarama is an indigenous Fijian but has been disdainful of traditional institutions including the Great Council of Chiefs, which he disbanded last year, and the Methodist church.
His critics say Bainimarama neutered those groups to bolster his power. Human rights groups say his regime has tortured prisoners and violated freedoms. Fiji invoked martial law, sacked the nation's judiciary and placed censors in newsrooms in the two years ending 2011, and it continues to create rules by decree.
Bainimarama invited Kenyan constitutional expert Yash Ghai to draft a new constitution, then scrapped it. His own version, enacted in September, includes broad legal immunity for coup leaders and allows the government to suspend certain freedoms for the sake of public safety, order or morality.
"They didn't particularly want an independent process," Ghai said. "Having agreed to it, they changed their minds."
This year, editor Fred Wesley received a suspended, six-month jail sentence, and his paper, the Fiji Times, was fined $160,000. The crime? Reprinting a story out of New Zealand in which a soccer official said Fiji's judiciary wasn't independent.
"I suppose at the end of the day, for me, it's a learning experience," Wesley said in his Suva office. Asked if he feels he did anything wrong, he redirects the conversation, but he said he's happy that the censors are gone, and that dissenting political viewpoints can now be published.
Much criticism of government emerges through Fiji's lively, mostly anonymous social media scene, where this year someone posted a video of a recaptured prisoner being brutally beaten by at least eight men in plain clothes. After an international outcry, three prison guards were sacked, but Bainimarama sounded less than remorseful.
"At the end of the day, I will stick by my men," he told local website Fijivillage.com. "We cannot discard them just because they've done their duty in looking after the security of this nation and making sure we sleep peacefully at night."
The government gets its message out through six Fijian blogs and tweets from Bainimarama's "@FijiPM" Twitter account. But it's not run by the government: It has paid Washington-based public relations company Qorvis Communications $1.2 million over the past two years, according to Fijian budget figures.
U.S. federal disclosure forms show that Qorvis set up and ran the social media outlets and helped write a speech that Fiji's foreign minister gave to the United Nations.
Bainimarama declined an interview with The Associated Press, as did his right-hand man, Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum. Qorvis, whose clients also include Sri Lanka and Equatorial Guinea, did not respond to interview requests.
Bainimarama also is getting help from Colorado-based infrastructure company MWH Global, which helped create a new road agency. The government shut down the old one last year, and documents show that more than 1,000 workers were laid off.
New Zealand engineer Neil Cook, who runs the new agency, said he's trying to catch up on two decades of neglect and is pushing forward with new projects, like a sealed road on Vanua Levu connecting the ferry with the main town, Labasa.
Such work has won over many Fijians, including taxi driver David Charles. Driving along Suva's waterfront, he said he notices road improvements every day and likes Bainimarama's call for Fijians to rely not on their heritage but on hard work to get ahead: "That's why, definitely, I will vote for him," Charles said.
Others say Bainimarama's populist efforts do not excuse abuses, or the coup.
"He's committed treason, and he must account for it. That's it," said Mick Beddoes, a former opposition leader. "It doesn't matter whether he's built a gold highway across Fiji."
Beddoes is helping coordinate the strategy of three political parties that oppose Bainimarama. He said his criticism of Bainimarama has earned him regular police visits but no jail time.
Bainimarama describes his coup as a revolution, and says former allies Australia and New Zealand betrayed him by opposing it.
"Rather than engage with us, to try to understand why our national compass had to be radically reset, they turned their backs on us and tried to damage us," he told a group of Pacific leaders recently. "It made us all the more determined not to be deflected from our reform agenda, not to kowtow to outsiders."
Bainimarama has since worked to improve ties with countries including Russia, North Korea, Turkey and, most importantly, China. Fiji announced this year that 300 senior government and agency officials would be trained in leadership skills in China.
Budget documents show China is giving Fiji tens of millions of dollars in soft loans, with interest rates of 2 percent, and grants to help fund road improvements and other projects — everything from a hospital to a $7.5 million "Mushroom Technology Demonstration Center."
"Where others turned their backs on us, China has remained a steadfast friend," government spokeswoman Sharon Smith-Johns recently said. "And I can assure you, that is deeply appreciated."