In Fiji’s Closely Observed Election, the Incumbent Takes the Lead

It was a clash between two former coup leaders, set against the backdrop of a remote and palm-fringed vacation destination that has, of late, taken on outsized importance in a battle for primacy in the Pacific between the United States and China. And with the country’s military constitutionally permitted to intervene if it saw fit, the contest had the potential to become volatile.

So, as voters went to the polls for a general election on Wednesday, international focus turned to Fiji, an island nation whose history of stormy politics is exemplified by four coups between 1987 and 2006. This was the country’s third general election since democratic voting was reintroduced to the Constitution in 2013.

In the first results of the evening, released more than an hour later than expected, Sitiveni Rabuka, the leader of the People’s Alliance party — who led Fiji’s first coup in 1987 — appeared on his way to victory against the strongman incumbent, Prime Minister Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama. Mr. Bainimarama, widely known by the first name Frank, himself seized power with the help of the military in 2006, before winning democratic elections in 2014 and 2018.

Then suddenly, the country’s election results app went down altogether, and the provisional count stopped being released. When results came back online, Mr. Rabuka’s significant lead had vanished.

“The situation occurred because of the termination of a data transfer,” Mohammed Saneem, the Fijian election supervisor, said at a news conference. “And then when we retried to do it, that’s when things got messy.”

Early on Thursday morning, Mr. Bainimarama’s party, FijiFirst, led with almost 46 percent of the vote to about 33 percent for the People’s Alliance. Provisional results have now closed, and the final release of votes is expected to take as long as two days, with ballots trickling in from outer islands and remote villages.

Ahead of the vote, experts had warned that Mr. Bainimarama might not honor the results of the election and could seek intervention from the military, with which he has a close relationship. The country’s Constitution gives final control over citizens’ “security, defense and well-being” to the military, a clause that is widely understood to mean that it has the right to intervene if it sees fit.

Speaking to foreign reporters before the results were released, Mr. Bainimarama said he would “of course” respect the outcome of the election. He added: “Haven’t they got any intelligent reporters from Australia to come ask me a better question than that?”

Fiji, with a population of about a million people and by far the largest economy of its region, grew closer to China in 2006 after an initial burst of investment from Beijing. The funding was particularly timely as Fiji faced damaging sanctions from Australia and New Zealand related to the coup in which Mr. Bainimarama came to power.

The relationship with China could enter a more distant phase under Mr. Rabuka, who earlier this year indicated that he would prefer closer ties to Australia, a longtime ally of Fiji, instead of signing a security pact with Beijing.

The early election results come after a bitter contest and amid a government clampdown on the press and on supporters of opposition parties. In one high-profile example, a pro-opposition lawyer who had made light of an error in a legal document was convicted of contempt of court, in what critics saw as a sign of Fiji’s eroding civil liberties.

With little pre-election polling, analysts had struggled to predict an outcome. For 48 hours until the election ended, Fiji underwent a media blackout, in which all political parties were forbidden from campaigning. Citizens were prohibited from making political posts on social media, displaying banners and wearing colors or logos of parties. Those who broke the rules could be subject to stiff penalties, including prison.

Even with little coverage from the news media in Fiji itself, there were early signs that Mr. Bainimarama’s support might be declining, including a dwindling voter share over the last two elections. There is also a sense of disgruntlement among voters about some of the economic challenges the country faces in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, which devastated its tourism industry.

“The government’s been in office for a while, and people tend to tire of long-term governments,” said Dominic O’Sullivan, a professor of political science at Charles Sturt University in Australia.

Even Mr. Bainimarama’s government had sought to appeal to calls for a fresh face, running on a platform of reform, with the slogan “We are the change.”

Turnout in the election was low: Late in the day, Mr. Saneem, the Fijian election supervisor, called on voters to come to the polls, with 51 percent of voters having cast a ballot as of an hour before polls closed. In the 2006 election, voter turnout was at 64 percent.

The Fijian electoral base skews young, with more than 50 percent of registered voters being younger than 40, while 86 percent of candidates on the ballot are over 40. Mr. Bainimarama, 68, is a 16-year veteran of Fijian politics, while Mr. Rabuka, 74, has been a fixture of Fijian political life since 1987.

The reluctance to come to the polls may communicate a wider sense of cynicism about the freedom and fairness of the election, said Professor O’Sullivan. “With the two likely contenders for prime minister being former coup leaders, it may be that people think, ‘Is it really democracy?’”

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