Polls have been closed in parliamentary elections in Fiji, conducted for the first time in eight years, following a decision by the South Pacific nation's military rulers that the time was right for a transition back to democratic rule.

Fiji, a tropical chain of islands of 900,000 people about 3,200km east of Australia, has suffered four coups since 1987, the latest in 2006 led by former army chief Voreqe "Frank" Bainimarama, whose Fiji First Party had a strong lead heading into the general election.

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.

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.

New constitution

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

While new laws mean equality has improved on the surface, some have argued that the animosity continues to fester under the surface.

Mosese Tikoitoga, the military chief, seemed to be warning against any repeat of that sort of violence, while at the same time implying that the majority ethnic-Fijian military retained the right to intervene in politics.

"The very same people who didn't want the military to provide the security ... are now creating an atmosphere of intimidation against the people or parties that want to cast their vote in a free and fair environment," he told the Fiji Broadcasting Corporation.

Seven political parties and two independent candidates are standing for representation in the 50-seat parliament. Under the constitution, a government must be formed within 17 days of the election, leaving open the possibility of a coalition of several minor parties.

Source: Agencies