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Fiji General Elections End - 2001-09-01

A week of polling in Fiji's general elections ended Saturday. Counting the votes will start Monday and is expected to last two to three days.

Fijians should find out next week who their new prime minister will be. Some foreign diplomats have warned if it is Mhendra Chaudhry, the head of the powerful Labor Party who was deposed last year by nationalist rebels, there could be a new wave of racially motivated violence.

The police say special security arrangements have been worked out to make sure he stays safe and in office, should he be chosen to lead a new government.

On the final day of voting Saturday, one senior security officer said between them, the police and the army should be able to handle any problems that came their way.

It's more than 15 months since the nationalist gang ousted the Chaudhry government. He was Fiji's first ethnic Indian prime minister. And he's contesting the poll along with the gunman who deposed him, George Speight, who is in jail awaiting a trial for treason, and the man who replaced him, the caretaker prime minister Laisenia Qarase, installed by the military after last year's uprising.

Election officials here say more than 83 percent of the voters have turned out to have their say at the ballot box. That's slightly down on the figure for the last poll in 1999. Seats in the new 71-member parliament are largely allocated on the basis of race. Twenty-three are reserved for the indigenous majority and 19 for ethnic Indians who make up 44 percent of the population. Most of the remaining seats are open to anyone.

There is a sense here that the long and troubled journey back to democratic rule is almost over.

Counting starts on Monday and the result could be known within two days. Mhendra Chaudhry's Labor Party says it expects to be the dominant force in the new parliament.

Whoever forms the new government will have a difficult job ahead. The economy took a real battering in the aftermath of the coup, and output levels have not gone back to where they were before the uprising.

Fiji's international reputation has not fully recovered either since democracy was swept away by the nationalist rebels, who stormed parliament in May 2000. The country is still suspended from key decision-making bodies of the Commonwealth, an influential grouping of former British colonies, and limited trade sanctions remain in place.

Business experts believe the coup set the South Pacific nation's economy back 10 years, and warn this election must restore decisive democratic government.