Frank Bainimarama, a former coup leader, is on the verge of becoming Fiji's first elected leader in eight years, as international observers give the ballot a stamp of approval.

With 70 percent of the vote counted as of Thursday, the incumbent prime minister's Fiji First Party had 60.1 percent, well clear of its nearest rival, the Social Democratic Liberal Party (Sodelpa) on 26.7 percent.

"This was a credible election," said a statement from the 92-member panel drawn from 13 countries around the world as well as the European Union.

"While counting is ongoing and the results are yet to be finalised, we assess that the outcome is on track to broadly represent the will of the Fijian voters."

The election was conducted "in an atmosphere of calm, with an absence of electoral misconduct or evident intimidation".

Australia and New Zealand, who led global condemnation of Bainimarama following the coup, described the ballot as a "significant event".

"All early indications are that the conditions were in place for the people of Fiji to exercise their right to vote freely," Murray McCully, New Zealand's foreign minister, said.

Although Bainimarama was accused of human rights abuses and the Pacific nation subjected to international sanctions after he seized control in a 2006  coup, Brij Lal, a Fiji political analyst based at the Australian National University, said the outcome was no surprise.

"He had all the advantages of incumbency, name recognition, a public profile, media on his side, campaigning on the public purse, and a desire on the part of the voters for stability, which he promised," Lal told AFP news agency.

Political reforms

Fiji, a tropical chain of islands about 3,200km east of Australia, has had four coups since 1987, the latest in 2006.

Voters thronged to the polls, appearing ecstatic about once again choosing their leaders despite the spectre of security threats raised by the military and criticism of Bainimarama for using state media to drown out other parties.

"Finally, once in this generation, our voices will be heard. We can choose who’ll be running the next government," Joeli Katoniealik, a first-time voter, told Al Jazeera.

Bainimarama seized on a long-simmering rivalry between indigenous Fijian nationalists and minority ethnic Indians, the economically powerful descendants of labourers brought by the British to work sugarcane fields, to justify his coup in 2006.

In 2000, ethnic Fijians held the first Indo-Fijian prime minister hostage in parliament for 56 days, in a coup that began with deadly riots in the streets of the capital, Suva.

Bainimarama quickly abolished traditional, rival power bases such as the ethnic Fijian Great Council of Chiefs and old electoral boundaries that roughly grouped people according to their ethnicity to the advantage of majority ethnic Fijians.

He pushed steadily for equal rights, culminating in a 2013 constitution, helping him to consolidate his popularity among Indo-Fijians.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies