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Fiji Vote Questioned - 2001-09-06

Fiji's deposed Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry says there was widespread vote-rigging in his country's general election. Mr. Chaudhry says electoral fraud could cost his Fiji Labor Party the chance of forming the next government.

Mahendra Chaudhry claims there was mass rigging of the ballots in key constituencies, including his own, in a conspiracy to prevent Fiji Labor Party from returning to power. The ousted prime minister says it was an elaborate plot to wreck his electoral chances, engineered by his principal nationalist opponent from the Fiji People's Party, known as SDL.

Mr. Chaudhry says lawyers representing the Labor Party are preparing to take their complaints to the high court. They claim ballot papers supporting Labor candidates were deliberately invalidated by political opponents planted at polling stations. "Polling clerks were deliberately planted to invalidate FLP (Labor) votes," he says.

Mr. Chaudhry also claims hundreds of votes were smuggled into counting centers by the SDL. Its leader, Laisenia Qarase, denies the allegations and has challenged his Labor opponent to prove them. If it determines the election was tainted, Fiji's high court could force a fresh vote.

This was Fiji's first election since an armed gang deposed Mr. Chaudhry more than a year ago. It was monitored by three sets of international observers. The United Nations, the Commonwealth and the European Union have all said the polling was fair and credible. In a statement issued earlier this week, the U.N. mission here said it saw no problem significant enough to compromise the integrity of the process.

Meanwhile, the counting of the votes that will shape Fiji's immediate political destiny has continued for a fourth day. Labor and the nationalist SDL both have the same number of seats, with only a handful left to be declared. Both insist they are ready to form a coalition government. A final result is expected later Thursday or early Friday.