Voting is under way in Fiji in a high-stakes election that is being seen as a test of the Pacific nation’s democracy.
Wednesday’s election pits the party of Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama against a coalition headed by his longtime rival, Sitiveni Rabuka.
The vote is the third democratic election in Fiji since Bainimarama, who seized power in a coup in 2006, introduced a new constitution in 2013.
Bainimarama’s FijiFirst party went on to win elections in 2014 and 2018 but is now facing a “formidable” challenge from Rabuka’s coalition, with voters concerned about the rising cost of living in a tourism-reliant nation that has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.
About a quarter of the country’s population of 900,000 people live in poverty, according to official figures.
“It is now the third election cycle since the 2013 constitution. And what is at stake is whether they [Fijians] want four more years of the previous eight under Frank Bainimarama, whether they want him to continue or whether they want change,” said William Waqavakatoga, a PhD candidate in politics and international relations at the University of Adelaide in Australia.
Bainimarama, 68, faces an uphill battle, Waqavakatoga told Al Jazeera.
Key issues in Wednesday’s election include the soaring cost of living, deteriorating infrastructure and a “bungled” COVID-19 response.
There has also been criticism of the prime minister’s governance record, Waqavakatoga said, including allegations of political interference at the University of the South Pacific and a controversy over a contempt of court case the government launched against well-known lawyer Richard Naidu. The lawyer had pointed out that a judge had mistakenly written “injection” when he meant “injunction” in court documents.
Naidu has been found guilty and is set to be sentenced in January.
Fears of instability
Voters in Fiji are also concerned about a return to instability in a nation that has seen four coups in 35 years.
The power grabs were racially fuelled, with Indigenous Fijians fearful of losing political control to the economically powerful Indo-Fijian minority, who make up 35 percent of the country’s population and are descended from the ethnic Indians brought in to work in the sugarcane fields during the British colonial-era.
Rabuka, a former military chief, staged the first two of the power grabs in 1987 after a coalition dominated by Indo-Fijians won a general election. He went on to introduce a constitution enshrining political dominance for Indigenous Fijians in 1990 and to become prime minister after a general election in 1992.
Bainimarama, who led a push for equality following his power grab in 2006, including abolishing the country’s race-based electoral system, has played up Rabuka’s nationalist past during this year’s campaign. The 74-year-old opposition leader has tried to repair trust with the Indo-Fijian community by reaching out to Indo-Fijians at home and abroad, and by forming a coalition between his People’s Alliance and the National Federation Party, which attracts a multi-racial vote.
“What’s happening now is that Rabuka is trying to correct his past of being prime minister and on the other side, you have Bainimarama who’s said Rabuka is the same person who led the nationalists of 1987. And he’s used that as a tactic perhaps as to motivate fear in the electorate,” said Waqavakatoga.
“But I think this time round you’ll see that more people are concerned about economics rather than that fear.”
Observers say the military’s role will be key following Wednesday’s vote.
Ahead of the election, the military sought to allay fears of any interventions, with Major General Jone Kalouniwai insisting his forces will “honour the democratic process by respecting the outcome”.
In the capital Suva, voters said there was a palpable feeling of tension ahead of the election.
“It’s a bit tense at the moment because the older parties and the new parties are clashing into each other,” voter Avinay Kumar, 26, told the AFP news agency.
Bainimarama, who cast his vote in Suva, was asked if he would accept the results of Wednesday’s vote.
“Of course,” he replied before lashing out at reporters, suggesting they ask “better questions”.
Rabuka, who also cast his vote in Suva, said he was “feeling great and getting better”.
But he called into question whether the prime minister would concede if defeated.
“I accepted my defeat in 1999,” Rabuka said. “I hope he can do that. We cannot live forever, we cannot rule forever.”
Polling is expected to end at 6pm local time (06:00GMT) and results are expected within days.
Ahead of the vote, a multinational election observer group, led by Australia, India and Indonesia, said it had been given “full access” to election sites and had not “observed any irregularities” in registration or pre-polling.
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