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Fiji Voting Begins Peacefully - 2001-08-26

There's been a peaceful start to Fiji's return to democracy. Voters have queued for up to three hours to cast their ballots on the first of eight days of parliamentary elections.

Many indigenous Fijians and ethnic Indians attended church and temple Sunday on a day of rest before voting continues in the election aimed at restoring democracy to the racially divided nation.

Voting was slow but peaceful Saturday as electors chose between 18 parties and 351 candidates for the 71-seat parliament.

Under a complicated preferential voting system, 23 seats are reserved for indigenous Fijians, 19 for ethnic Indians, three for other racial groups and one for Rotuma Island. The remaining 25 seats are open.

Fierce competition between the indigenous parties is expected to split the Fijian vote. The big winner could once again be Mahendra Chaudhry's Fiji Labor Party, which is expected to do well at the polls.

Mr. Chaudhry's multi-racial government was deposed last year in an armed coup led by a failed businessman, George Speight. He's awaiting trial for treason and is also standing in the election for the ultra-nationalist Conservative Alliance party. Analysts are predicting Mr. Speight could well win the seat in his home province of Tailevu North.

Under Fijian law Mr. Speight can contest the elections but would lose his seat if convicted of the charges he faces. The former rebel leader has always insisted his hijacking of Mr. Chaudhry's government was carried out in the name of indigenous rights, which he claimed had been neglected by Fiji's first ethnic Indian Prime Minister.

Ethnic Indians make up 44 percent of the population and own much of the wealth. Their ancestors were brought to the South Pacific by the British more than 100 years ago to work on colonial sugar plantations.

This week's election goes on for eight days. Three teams of international observers are working across the country to check and report on any voting irregularities.

Some members of the United Nations observer team have boarded boats that are touring the outer islands collecting ballots. Other observers from the Commonwealth, a grouping of former British colonies, and the European Union are also monitoring Fiji's return to multi-racial democracy.