May 12, 2006

Fijians urged to vote on final day of chaotic poll

By Paul Tait

SUVA, Fiji (Reuters) - Officials running Fiji's chaotic
election urged voters to make one last effort to cast their
ballots on the final day of polling on Saturday after a
sluggish turnout.

Just over 217,000 people, less than half of Fiji's roughly
470,000 eligible voters, had cast their ballots over the first
five days of polling in the week-long election.

Polling started badly a week ago when the late arrival of
ballot papers and boxes forced thousands to queue for hours in
the blazing tropical sun in the capital Suva and across the
rural west of the main island of Viti Levu.

The election pits indigenous Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase
against ethnic Indian opposition leader Mahendra Chaudhry, who
was toppled in a coup by armed nationalists in 2000. Both have
said they expect to win a majority in the 71-seat parliament.

Fiji has suffered three racially motivated coups against
Indian-dominated governments since 1987, as well as a bloody
mutiny several months after Chaudhry's elected government fell.

Fiji's outspoken military chief Frank Bainimarama said he
would act against candidates who incited racial hatred,
underscoring the tense nature of the poll.

With many polling stations in far-flung rural areas and
islands already closed, Assistant Elections Supervisor Semi
Matalau urged Fijians to get to urban polling stations.

"We duly request voters who have missed voting all
throughout the week to attempt to cast their votes at the urban
centers," he told reporters.

Polling stations would remain open beyond their scheduled
closing times if voters were still lining up, officials said.

Matalau said he expected at least half of Fiji's registered
voters would cast ballots on Saturday, which would mean total
voter turnout would roughly match or exceed the figure of about
80 percent when Qarase won power in 2001.


Vote counting will not begin until Monday. Matalau's office
said preliminary results should be available later that day and
a final count on Tuesday.

Hundreds of sealed, wooden ballot boxes were being carried
by boats, trucks and planes to a central counting station in
the capital Suva on Saturday before the counting begins.

Chaudhry has lodged a complaint with police over thousands
of names missing from electoral rolls and thousands of extra
ballot papers which have been printed.

He told Reuters this week he believed the election was
being systematically rigged in an attempt to disenfranchise
ethnic Indian voters and to ensure that Qarase's mainly
indigenous government is returned, claims Qarase has brushed

The election was overshadowed on Friday by the surprise
court appearance of former prime minister and 1987 coup leader
Sitiveni Rabuka on charges of inciting mutiny over a bloody
attempt to topple Bainimarama in November 2000.

Police described the timing Rabuka's court appearance as

The former military strongman will appear again in Fiji's
High Court next month. He said he would plead not guilty.

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, adding to persistent racial tensions.