BA (Fiji), May 5: Fiji's prime minister clashed with the military on the eve of a racially charged election in the unstable South Pacific nation after the armed forces chief urged his troops today not to vote for the government.
Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase's uneasy relationship with military chief Frank Bainimarama has added to election tensions in a county which has suffered three racially motivated coups and a mutiny since 1987.
Bainimarama accuses Qarase of being soft of the leaders of a 2000 coup which ultimately led to Qarase's indigenous Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL) party gaining power at the last elections in 2001.
He has also warned him not to incite racial hatred between indigenous Fijians who make up 51 percent of the 906,000 population and ethnic Indians who dominate the sugar- and tourism-based economy.
Bainimarama today accused the government of planning to cut the size of Fiji's military after the May 6-13 election.
''This is not interfering with the process of the elections, this is simply telling my people not to vote for a party who is thinking of leaving many officers without a job,'' Bainimarama told Fiji TV.
Qarase described local media reports about possible defence cuts as ''deliberate misinformation''.
''It could even be part of a politically inspired campaign to influence voters on the eve of the election,'' he told reporters.
Race remains the central issue of the poll battle between Qarase and his ethnic Indian challenger, Mahendra Chaudhry, after Qarase said he does not believe Fiji is ready for a non-indigenous leader.
Police leave has been cancelled and the military conducted ''live fire'' security exercises this week. On Friday, a small army unit carrying assault rifles marched through Lautoka, a sugar town on the northwest coast of Fiji's main island Viti Levu.
''It's totally unnecessary,'' Qarase said of the show of force.
''You can't intimidate the will of the people,'' he said. International observers have expressed concern over the military's role in the campaign. ''I don't think it's a wise thing for this country,'' European Union election observer Istvan Szent-Ivanyi said. Chaudhry won elections in 1999 but his multiracial government fell after nationalist gunmen, led by failed businessman George Speight, stormed the parliament in the name of indigenous rights in May 2000.
Bainimarama declared martial law and installed Qarase as interim leader before the SDL head won free elections in 2001.
Qarase predicted a close result but expected his party would win a majority in the 71-seat parliament.
Chaudhry in turn predicted his party could win as many as 39 seats. ''We are quite confident that we will win this election, that is how it is looking at the moment,'' he told reporters.
Chaudhry's campaign director Gaffar Ahmed accused Qarase of using ''the politics of fear''.
''Mr Qarase is bringing the race issue. We are focusing on bread-and-butter issues, good governance, eliminating poverty and building investor confidence,'' Ahmed told Reuters at Chaudhry's headquarters in Ba, on Viti Levu's ''sugar coast''.
Indigenous Fijians fear the economic clout of Indians, whose descendants were brought to the former British colony to work sugar cane farms, will be matched by political power.
''Chaudhry, he wants to give us India,'' said Aporosa Namaqa, a courier from the tourism hub of Nadi. ''My family, the old ones, are all SDL.'' Roughly 2,000 ballot boxes will be distributed by trucks, boats and planes around Fiji's 320-odd islands over the next eight days.
Chickens roamed through the yard of an electoral official's home in Nadi on Friday where 200 ballot boxes were being readied for distribution around northwestern Viti Levu.
Vote counting will begin on May 15 and take four days.