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Ballot delays mar start of Fiji election

Written by: Staff
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SABETO, Fiji, May 6 (Reuters) Fiji's racially charged election got off to a chaotic and embarrassing start today when the late arrival of ballot papers forced thousands to queue for hours, with some being turned away and told to return later.

The Electoral Commission agreed to keep voting stations open an extra hour after some voters were kept waiting for more than three hours in 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 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 per cent 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.

Voters at the racially mixed village of Sabeto expressed frustration at the delays caused by the late arrival of ballot papers at the main electoral office in the tourism hub of Nadi.

More than 100 voters queued under the shade of trees in the Sabeto schoolyard as observers from the European Union and the Commonwealth watched.

''People are getting impatient,'' Sushila Rameshwar, a National Federation Party candidate for the Nadi district, told election officials three hours after the scheduled opening time of 7 a m (0030 IST).

Villager Sohrab Ali was told to leave and return later because the right ballots for his constituency had not arrived.

''It's a pain. I've got my granddaughters here and they haven't had their breakfast,'' said Ali, a sugar cane farmer.

''I was here on time. We're trying to be responsible and vote,'' he told Reuters.

Election officials in the west said the problems would be resolved. Voting will stop in the deeply religious South Pacific nation tomorrow and resume on Monday for another six days.

''From next week onwards I am giving my assurances to all the voters in the western division that everything will be running smoothly as we planned and polling stations will be open on time,'' election official Savenaca Kaunisela told reporters.

Sabeto sits amid sugar cane fields under a jagged hill known locally as Turukawa, or the sleeping giant. The district has about 11,000 indigenous Fijian voters and 13,000 ethnic Indians, whose ancestors were brought to the former British colony to work on sugar farms.

There were similar delays at dozens of other polling places across western Viti Levu and the capital Suva, where Qarase cast his ballot and urged all eligible Fijians to do the same.

''This is their day and they owe it to Fiji that they should do the right thing and vote wisely,'' Qarase told local radio.

Police were clearly visible around voting stations but there were no security incidents reported despite the long delays.

Outspoken military chief Frank Bainimarama has clashed with Qarase several times in the past year and urged his troops on the eve of the election not to vote for Qarase's Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL) party.

He also warned candidates against inciting racial hatred after Qarase said Fiji was not yet ready for an Indian leader.

SDL, represented on ballot papers by a picture of a dove, won 37 seats at the 2001 election. Chaudhry's Fiji Labour Party, represented by a coconut palm, had 28 seats.

Vote counting begins on May 15, with results to be announced on May 18.

REUTERS DKS HT0930

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