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Laisenia Qarase Declares Victory in Fiji - 2001-09-08

Fiji's caretaker prime minister, Laisenia Qarase, has declared victory in the country's first post-coup election, and is insisting he's the man to lead the new government. His supporters have begun celebrating already, although potential coalition partners have not yet publicly declared support for him.

Mr. Qarase, the leader of the Fijian People's Party says he expects to form a new government early next week.

His candidates won 31 seats in the election, four more than their nearest rivals, the Fiji Labor Party, but still short of an absolute majority. The caretaker prime minister needs the backing of five members of Parliament from the various smaller parties to achieve victory.

If and when that support is confirmed, Mr. Qarase, a former banker, will then tell the president, Ratu Josefa Iloilo, that he is ready for office. That could happen as early as Monday, if negotiations go his way over the weekend.

Mahendra Chaudhry, the head of the Fiji Labor Party, hasn't given up either, and is also negotiating with the minor parties as he too attempts to return to power, 15 months after being ousted at gunpoint by indigenous rebels.

Laisenia Qarase's Fijian People's Party is confident it won't need the support of George Speight's Conservative Alliance. Mr. Speight, who deposed the government of Mahendra Chaudhry last year, is one of six ultra-nationalist alliance candidates elected to the new parliament.

If Mr. Qarase can form a government without relying on them, he will avoid the thorny issue of an amnesty for Mr. Speight. He is in jail on treason charges, and his party says an unconditional pardon would have to be part of any coalition deal.

There are also calls for the two main parties, the indigenous-dominated Fijian People's Party and the mostly Indo-Fijian Labor Party, to bury their differences and form a unified government.