SUVA, Fiji (AFP) – The Pacific nation of Fiji will Wednesday hold its first elections in almost eight years, with voters urged to embrace democracy after decades of ethnic tensions and military meddling in civil affairs.
The September 17 vote is considered pivotal to ending the archipelago’s “coup culture”, which saw four governments toppled between 1987 and 2006 amid instability stemming from tensions between indigenous Fijians and ethnic Indians.
After nearly eight years of authoritarian rule, 590,000 registered voters in the population of about 900,000 will have the chance to select from 262 candidates standing for election to a new 50-seat parliament set up under a constitution adopted in 2013.
A multinational observer group – led by Australia, India, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea – will monitor the poll to ensure it is free and fair.
Fiji’s status as the largest and most economically powerful South Pacific island nation means the election matters not just to Fiji, but to neighbouring countries such as Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu.
The International Monetary Fund noted in its most recent assessment of Fiji that “successful elections and a smooth transition to reform-oriented democratic government could result in stronger confidence in the economy and higher capital inflows”.
Yet rights groups such as Amnesty International say doubts remain about whether basic human rights are being honoured in Fiji, raising concerns the election could be a “democratic sham”.
“There’s a lot more to true democracy than simply holding an election,” Amnesty’s New Zealand executive director Grant Bayldon said.
“Freedom of speech, an independent media, rule of law, a constitution that respects human rights – all are essential, and all have been under siege in Fiji since (Voreqe) Bainimarama took power in the December 2006 coup.”
Bainimarama seized power against a volatile backdrop of divisions between indigenous Fijians and ethnic Indians descended from sugar plantation labourers shipped in by the British during the colonial era.
Indians, who form about 40 percent of the population, traditionally dominated the economy while indigenous Fijians gravitated towards government and the military.
The balance was disturbed when Indians began to gain political power in the 1980s, prompting coups in May 1987, October 1987 and May 2000 by ultra-nationalists with military links determined to reassert indigenous control.
Bainimarama took over in 2006 vowing to end the turmoil by rooting out corruption and introducing a one person, one vote system that would end racial inequalities.
His military regime did bring stability, but in the process tore up the constitution, sacked the judiciary and tightened media censorship.
When he reneged on a pledge to hold elections in 2009, major allies Australia and New Zealand led a push to isolate Fiji diplomatically, resulting in suspension from the Commonwealth and the Pacific Islands Forum.
With a new constitution in place, Bainimarama has declared that Fijians are now ready for democracy once more and he stepped down from the military earlier this year in order to run for prime minister with his FijiFirst party.
“I am intensely conscious of the solemn duty that rests with me to continue the revolution that we began together seven years ago — to create a new Fiji, a better Fiji for ourselves and for future generations,” he said at the time.
The 60-year-old is tipped to win the election, with opinion polls putting his support at about 50-60 percent.
Despite the revolutionary rhetoric, he has promised to honour the result of the election, even if he loses.
Seven parties are qualified to take part in the ballot: FijiFirst, the Social Democratic Liberal Party (Sodelpa), Fiji Labour Party, National Federation Party, People’s Democratic Party, One Fiji Party and United Freedom Party.
Bainimarama has identified Sodelpa, which is dominated by indigenous Fijians, as his major threat, although it is polling only 20 percent, meaning it will need to form a coalition of several parties if it hopes to defeat FijiFirst.