SYDNEY - Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama is leading the vote count in national elections held in the South Pacific nation Wednesday. In second place is a former prime minister who himself was behind two coups in Fiji.
Bainimarama has held power in Fiji since 2006, when he led a military uprising against an elected government. He said he seized power in an attempt to combat institutional racism and corruption, but he was labeled a dictator in some quarters. International sanctions followed the 2006 bloodless coup, and Fijians would wait eight years for democracy to be restored.
In 2014, Bainimarama resigned from the military and became prime minister in a landslide election victory.
This time around, results posted on the government’s social media account show Bainimarama’s Fiji First party with a comfortable lead as counting in the South Pacific archipelago continues. Voting in some areas has been delayed by bad weather.
The incumbent prime minister’s main rival in the 2018 election is a former army officer and former prime minister, Sitiveni Rabuka, who lead two military coups in 1987. The instability was caused by fears that Fiji’s government would be dominated by the ethnic Indian minority. Indo-Fijians make up about one-third of the population. They were brought to the islands in the 19th and 20th centuries to work on Britain’s colonial sugar cane plantations.
“Of course, we have a very strange contest because now unlike 2014 we are pitting two coup leaders against each other,” said professor Jon Fraenkel, an analyst from the University of Victoria in Wellington, New Zealand. “The 1987 coup leader Sitiveni Rabuka has made a startling comeback to head the main opposition party, and he is fighting against Frank Bainimarama, also a former military commander who staged the 2006 coup. It is definitely a competitive election campaign. Of course, given Fiji’s history there are always fears that if the result goes the wrong way the military might step in.”
Australia has been a keen supporter of democracy in Fiji. In 2014, it lifted sanctions imposed after the 2006 coup. Canberra has been eager to re-engage with Fiji to counter China’s rising influence in the South Pacific.
Post-coup Fiji has been welcomed back into the international community, with Britain’s Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, visiting in October.
Fiji has a population of about 900,000 people. The tropical islands lie two-thirds of the way between Hawaii to New Zealand.
More than 500,000 Fijians were eligible to vote in this year’s election.