SUVA, May 3 (Reuters) Mahendra Chaudhry, Fiji's first ethnic-Indian prime minister who was toppled in a racially inspired coup in 2000, says he is prepared to lead the divided South Pacific nation again if he wins this month's election.
Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase and nationalists say that a Chaudhry victory in the May 6-13 vote could again spark unrest and argue that Fiji needs to be led by an indigenous Fijian.
Fiji has suffered three racially based coups and a bloody army mutiny since 1987. All police leave has been cancelled to ensure security for the coming polls.
''This election should not be about race, about language, about coups, about an Indian or Fijian prime minister,'' Chaudhry told a political leaders' forum in the capital, Suva.
''It should be about the people. It should be about what matters to the people,'' he told the forum last night.
Chaudhry said he would take up the position of prime minister if his Fiji Labour Party won the election, Fiji news service fijilive.com reported today.
Indigenous Fijian nationalists held Chaudhry hostage for 56 days in the 2000 coup to end ethnic-Indian political power.
Indigenous Fijians make up about 51 per cent of the 906,000 population, but ethnic Indians who comprise 44 per cent of the population dominate the economy. Indians were brought to Fiji to work British sugar cane plantations in the late 1800s.
Prime Minister Qarase says Fiji is a ''young democracy'', gaining independence from Britain in 1970, and a developing nation and is still not ready for an ethnic-Indian leader.
''I personally feel that it would be better for a Fijian to become PM and leader of the country,'' Qarase told the forum.
Qarase replaced Chaudhry in 2000 when he was installed as prime minister by the military, which declared martial law to end the coup. Qarase went on to defeat Chaudhry and win the last election in 2001.
Nationalist leader Iliesa Duvuloco told the Suva forum that, if Chaudhry won the coming election, he should make way for an indigenous prime minister for the good of the country.
Duvuloco cited the precedent of Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, who shunned the Indian prime ministership after leading her Congress Party to an upset victory over Hindu nationalists in 2005 elections.
''I only hope he has the good sense and the humility to know that we are living in Fiji and let the Fijian people run and rule their own country, like Sonia Gandhi did in India,'' he said.
Reuters DKS VP0800