Counting is underway in Fiji's general election as the country prepares for a return to democracy. Security around the four counting centers is extremely tight, as officials process almost a half million votes. Among the candidates, is former prime minister Mahendra Chaudhry - who was deposed in a nationalist coup last year - and the gunman who led the overthrow - George Speight.

This election is a chance for the country to repair the damage inflicted by last year's coup. The people of Fiji have turned out in force to have their say. One of the biggest security operations ever seen here is now underway to ensure the final phase of the poll goes smoothly. Thousands of ballot boxes from across the Fijian Islands are now under the protection of 400 police officers at four counting centers. The Army is in standby if needed.

The counting of the ballots is a huge operation. Eight-thousand people - among them hundreds of teenage school children drafted to help because of a lack of civil servants - will work non-stop in shifts to get the job done.

Fiji has a complex system of preferential voting and the chief election supervisor, Walter Rigamoto, says the process will take time. It is not a race he said we have to get it right.

Teams of observers from overseas said they are happy with the way the vote has gone so far. The Commonwealth - a grouping of former British colonies - said its monitors had gone to the most remote polling stations and had found only minor problems. And far as the Commonwealth delegation is concerned, the election has been credible. These sentiments were echoed by the United Nations mission. It deployed 20 teams of monitors during vote - which ran from August 25 to September first. They believed it was carried out in a transparent manner.

It is more than a year since the country's last elected government was overthrown by nationalist gunmen - who were later arrested. The ringleaders are now awaiting a trial for treason. Three - including the coup leader George Speight - are standing as candidates in the election.

For the past 14 months, Fiji has been ruled by a military-backed caretaker government, which is now in its final days in office.

Just who will be the prime minister is the burning question. Mahendra Chaudhry - ousted a year ago - is a strong candidate. His Labor Party expects to be a dominant force in the 71-member Parliament.

Whoever gets the top job will face serious racial, economic and political problems - as Fiji enters another decisive period after many months of turmoil.