May 6, 2006

Ballot delays mar start of Fiji election

By Paul Tait

SABETO, Fiji (Reuters) - Fiji's racially charged election
got off to a chaotic and embarrassing start on Saturday when
the late arrival of ballot papers forced thousands to queue for
hours, with some being turned away and told to return later.

The Electoral Commission agreed to keep voting stations
open an extra hour after some voters were kept waiting for more
than three hours in the rural west of the main island of Viti

The delays added to a tense build-up to the week-long
election, with police and the military warning they would not
tolerate incitements to racial hatred in a nation which has
suffered three racially motivated coups and a mutiny since

The poll pits indigenous Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase
against Mahendra Chaudhry, who was ousted as prime minister in
a 2000 coup by armed nationalists, with both predicting they
would win a majority in the 71-seat parliament.

Indigenous Fijians who make up 51 percent of the 906,000
population fear that the economic clout of ethnic Indians, who
dominate the sugar- and tourism-based economy, will be matched
by political power.

Voters at the racially mixed village of Sabeto expressed
frustration at the delays caused by the late arrival of ballot
papers at the main electoral office in the tourism hub of Nadi.

More than 100 voters queued under the shade of trees in the
Sabeto schoolyard as observers from the European Union and the
Commonwealth watched.

"People are getting impatient," Sushila Rameshwar, a
National Federation Party candidate for the Nadi district, told
election officials three hours after the scheduled opening time
of 7 a.m. (1900 GMT Friday).

Villager Sohrab Ali was told to leave and return later
because the right ballots for his constituency had not arrived.

"It's a pain. I've got my granddaughters here and they
haven't had their breakfast," said Ali, a sugar cane farmer.

"I was here on time. We're trying to be responsible and
vote," he told Reuters.

Election officials in the west said the problems would be
resolved. Voting will stop in the deeply religious South
Pacific nation on Sunday and resume on Monday for another six

"From next week onwards I am giving my assurances to all
the voters in the western division that everything will be
running smoothly as we planned and polling stations will be
open on time," election official Savenaca Kaunisela told

Sabeto sits amid sugar cane fields under a jagged hill
known locally as Turukawa, or the sleeping giant. The district
has about 11,000 indigenous Fijian voters and 13,000 ethnic
Indians, whose ancestors were brought to the former British
colony to work on sugar farms.

There were similar delays at dozens of other polling places
across western Viti Levu and the capital Suva, where Qarase
cast his ballot and urged all eligible Fijians to do the same.

"This is their day and they owe it to Fiji that they should
do the right thing and vote wisely," Qarase told local radio.

Police were clearly visible around voting stations but
there were no security incidents reported despite the long

Outspoken military chief Frank Bainimarama has clashed with
Qarase several times in the past year and urged his troops on
the eve of the election not to vote for Qarase's Soqosoqo
Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL) party.

He also warned candidates against inciting racial hatred
after Qarase said Fiji was not yet ready for an Indian leader.

SDL, represented on ballot papers by a picture of a dove,
won 37 seats at the 2001 election. Chaudhry's Fiji Labour
Party, represented by a coconut palm, had 28 seats.

Vote counting begins on May 15, with results to be
announced on May 18.