Mon, May 08, 2006 - Page 4 News List

Fijian election off to a shaky start

CONCERN Administrative problems and the specter of the past cast a shadow over the first day of voting in the unstable democracy on Saturday


Fiji's election supervisor yesterday took responsibility for long delays and other problems at voting stations on the first day of the weeklong elections dominated by ethnic tensions and a dispute between the military chief and the prime minister.

Polling booths were closed as scheduled yesterday in the strongly Christian country, and voting will resume today. On Saturday, the first day of voting, thousands of people waited for hours and others were turned away from several polling stations -- most in the capital, Suva -- because ballot papers and electoral rolls had not arrived on time, election officials said.

Election Supervisor Semesa Karavaki said affected stations were kept open after the scheduled 5pm closing time to make-up lost time.

"They'll all open at the scheduled time tomorrow," Karavaki said yesterday. "Voting went very smoothly after all the polling stations were open and that is an indication of what it's going to be like tomorrow."

Karavaki said he took responsibility for the delays which were due "to a certain extent" to his observation of the Seventh Day Adventist Sabbath on Saturday.

He rejected angry candidates' demands that he be fired as the top election official, and insisted he would not work on the final polling day on Saturday.

"I'll make better preparations in advance of my next Sabbath," Karavaki said.

The contest to fill 71 parliamentary seats and elect a prime minister is a test of this former British colony's democracy, which has weathered three coups in the past decade and remains split by tensions between the indigenous Fijian majority and large ethnic Indian minority.

Analysts have expressed concern that a victory for caretaker Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase could mean continuing instability wrought by a bitter dispute he has with military chief Commodore Frank Bainimarama, while a win for Labour opposition leader Mahendra Chaudhry could provoke another coup.

Chaudhry was Fiji's first ethnic-Indian prime minister when Fijian nationalists stormed parliament in May 2000 and took him and other lawmakers hostages, demanding Fijian primacy in politics.

Indigenous Fijians account for 51 percent of the population of about 906,000, while Indians are a minority of about 44 percent.

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