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Former coup leaders face off in Fiji vote

Reuters / Stringer | Voters wait in a line to enter a polling station to cast ballots in Fiji's general election near Suva on November 14, 2018.

Voters in Fiji were chosing between two former coup leaders Wednesday in only the second election since the military took control of the Pacific island nation in 2006.

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The ballot pits Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, the former army chief who led a bloodless takeover of the government 12 years ago, against another coup leader, Sitiveni Rabuka of the SODELPA Party.

Bainimarama's FijiFirst Party, which secured a landslide 59 percent in the last election four years ago, is favourite to retain office against a fractured opposition.

The 64-year-old has promised stability and an end to the "coup culture" that saw four governments toppled between 1987 and 2006.

Rabuka, who staged two coups in 1987 and led the country from 1992-99, was only cleared to run in the election on Monday after defeating corruption charges that government critics said were politically motivated.

Heavy rain forced the closure of 17 polling stations but Pravin Narain, one of about 550,000 registered voters in the nation of 920,000, said the process went smoothly when he cast his ballot in Suva.

"The weather failed to dampen the spirit of the people," he said.

Given the backgrounds of both major candidates, there have inevitably been rumours one of the election's major players could try to stage a coup if the vote does not go their way.

However, police commissioner Sitiveni Qiliho said in the lead-up to the election that 2,000 officers were on duty to ensure there was no unrest.

"I want to reiterate again to all Fijians, forget the rumours," he told reporters.

"We are in control of the security situation here, go out and vote for the government you want. We will provide you with security you need."

Human rights concerns

Speaking on the streets of the capital, voter Ravai Vafoou said there was no appetite for another coup among the general public.

"Whether the party you voted for wins or not, the general notion is that as Fijians we will support whichever party forms government," he said.

FijiFirst's supporters say it has helped heal racial divisions by introducing equal rights for Indian-Fijians, a sizable minority brought in to work on sugar plantations during British colonial rule.

It has also overseen a prosperous period for the tourism-driven economy, which is growing by more than three percent a year.

Initially branded a dictator by regional powers such as Australia and New Zealand, Bainimarama has gained international acceptance since the 2014 election.

He has campaigned on the global stage for climate change action, chairing the UN's COP 23 talks on global warming and highlighting the plight of island nations threatened by rising seas.

However, Amnesty International says Bainimarama's government is yet to fully restore freedoms that were suspended for several years after the 2006 coup.

"Since the last general elections in 2014, the human rights situation in Fiji has remained under attack," it said ahead of the vote, pointing to police brutality, curbs on freedom of assembly and media, as well as persecution of rights advocates.

SODELPA is the largest of the five opposition parties, winning 28 percent of the vote in 2014.

But observers say internal divisions and a succession of corruption cases against party leaders have rendered opposition to Bainimarama's government largely ineffective.

The winner of the election is not expected to be known for four or five days as votes trickle in from polling stations on the archipelago's more remote islands.

(AFP)

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