Fiji's ethnically charged election got off to a chaotic and embarrassing start yesterday when the late arrival of ballot papers forced thousands to queue for hours, with some being turned away and told to return later.
The elections office kept voting stations open up to two hours longer after some voters were kept waiting for four hours in the capital Suva and the rural west of the main island of Viti Levu.
The delays added to a tense build-up to the week-long election, with police and the military warning they would not tolerate incitements to racial hatred in a nation which has suffered three racially motivated coups and a bloody army mutiny since 1987.
The poll pits indigenous Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase against Mahendra Chaudhry, who was ousted as prime minister in a 2000 coup by armed nationalists, with both predicting they would win a majority in the 71-seat parliament.
Indigenous Fijians who make up 51 percent of the 906,000 population fear that the economic clout of ethnic Indians, who dominate the sugar-and tourism-based economy, will be matched by political power.
Chaudhry said Election Supervisor Semesa Karavaki should resign. Karavaki was absent because of religious beliefs.
"Look at the mess he's made and he's not at work today," Fiji Labour Party (FLP) leader Chaudhry told reporters.
Karavaki's deputy Semi Matalau apologized, blaming the delays on "logistical problems" which had been rectified.
Voting will stop in the deeply religious South Pacific nation today and resume tomorrow for another six days.
Qarase's United Fiji Party (SDL) has also been under fire from the country's military commander Voreqe Bainimarama over plans to offer amnesties to those involved in the 2000 coup.
Bainimarama last year said he would oust the government if amnesty legislation is passed and during the election campaign threatened to lock up Qarase and two other government-aligned politicians for suggesting a Labour victory could lead to another coup.
He also warned candidates against inciting racial hatred after Qarase said Fiji was not yet ready for an Indian leader. Qarase and Bainimarama cast their ballots in the same Suva polling station but did not speak to each other.
"I am very confident of a victory. I will secure a reasonable working majority," Qarase said after voting in Suva.
He insisted the confrontation between the government and military would be ended.
"The tension is still there but we are determined to resolve it when we get back after the general election," Qarase said, declining to say how he intended to end the stand-off.
SDL won 37 seats at the 2001 election. Chaudhry's FLP had 28 seats.
A result is expected to be known on May 18. Voting in the archipelago usually takes at least a week given the logistical problems involved in collecting ballots from far-flung islands and villages.