Fiji goes to the polls with coup-maker firmly in the lead

Former military leader Voreqe Bainimarama, who led a bloodless takeover 12 years ago, is favourite to retain office.

    Prime Minister Bainimarama has been a strong proponent of action on climate change as Fiji's seas rise [Richard Drew/AP]
    Prime Minister Bainimarama has been a strong proponent of action on climate change as Fiji's seas rise [Richard Drew/AP]

    Long queues formed on Wednesday as voting began in Fiji for the Pacific island nation's second election since a 2006 military coup.

    Prime Minister Voreqe 'Frank' Bainimarama, the former military leader who led a bloodless takeover 12 years ago, is favourite to retain office against a fractured opposition.

    Bainimarama's FijiFirst Party secured a landslide 59 percent when he restored democracy in 2014 and was polling at 68 percent ahead of Wednesday's vote.

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

    Bainimarama's main rival is another former coup leader, Sitiveni Rabuka of the SODELPA Party, who was only cleared to run in the election on Monday after facing corruption charges that government critics said were politically motivated.

    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.

    Climate action

    Fiji's election office closed 17 polling venues because of heavy rains affecting some 6,000 voters, but they will get a chance to cast their ballots later, the Fiji Times reported.

    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.

    Divided opposition

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    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.

    Polls close at 6pm (05:00 GMT) and the winner of Wednesday's 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.

    Jonathan Pryke, an analyst at Sydney-based think-tank the Lowy Institute, said a free and fair election would be a successful result for the nation of 920,000.

    "Whatever the outcome, the hope is that political stability survives so the economy can continue to drive better living standards and Fiji can continue to slowly plod towards complete democracy," he wrote.

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    SOURCE: AFP news agency