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Polls close at end of chaotic Fiji election

Written by: Staff
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Suva (Fiji), May 13: Polls began closing today at the end of a chaotic, racially charged election in Fiji, where it appeared an historically low number had voted.

Counting will not start until Monday, when a final figure for voter turnout is also likely, but the number of votes cast will almost certainly be well below the last two elections.

Election officials said preliminary figures showed 247,934 Fijians had cast their ballots by today, about 52 per cent of the roughly 470,000 eligible voters, and urged people to make one last push to the ballot box.

But the turnout will almost certainly be below the 79 per cent who voted in 2001 and well behind the 93 per cent who cast ballots in 1999 in the politically unstable South Pacific nation.

Assistant Elections Supervisor Semi Matalau said the likely final turnout figure would be between 60 and 70 per cent.

Registered voters face small fines for failing to cast ballots.

''We are optimistic that we will reach the 70 per cent mark.

Anything can happen,'' Matalau told a media conference.

The election pits indigenous Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase against ethnic Indian opposition leader Mahendra Chaudhry, who was toppled in a coup by armed nationalists in 2000. Both have said they expect to win a majority in the 71-seat parliament.

Fiji has suffered three racially motivated coups against governments since 1987 and a bloody mutiny several months after Chaudhry's elected government fell.

Fiji's outspoken military chief Frank Bainimarama said he would act against candidates who incited racial hatred, underscoring an often tense campaign.

BAD START

Polling started badly a week ago when late ballot papers and boxes forced thousands to queue for hours in blazing tropical sun in the capital Suva and across the rural west of the main island of Viti Levu. The final 114 polling stations began closing at 5 p.m.

local time (0500 GMT) but officials said they would remain open if people were still trying to vote. Many in far-flung rural areas and on about a third of Fiji's 320 islands had already closed.

Election observers agreed that the turnout was low.

''This is a phenomenon seen in other democracies around the world. Certainly the overall turnout has been low,'' Graham Hassall, head of University of the South Pacific team of observers, told Reuters.

He said election officials had also overcome geographical challenges in getting to voters in rugged highland areas and on remote islands.

''Our observers have heard of officials walking two and three hours just to get the votes of about 100 people,'' Hassall said.

Hundreds of sealed, wooden ballot boxes were being carried by boats, trucks and planes to counting centres today. Preliminary figures could be available on Monday and a final count on Tuesday, Matalau said.

Chaudhry has lodged a complaint with police over thousands of names missing from electoral rolls and thousands of extra ballot papers which have been printed.

He told Reuters this week he believed the election was being systematically rigged in an attempt to disenfranchise ethnic Indian voters and to ensure that Qarase's mainly indigenous government is returned, claims Qarase has brushed aside.

Hassall said it appeared there were no major irregularities.

The election was overshadowed yesterday by the surprise court appearance of former prime minister and 1987 coup leader Sitiveni Rabuka on charges of inciting mutiny in the military over an attempt to topple Bainimarama in November 2000.

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, adding to persistent racial tensions.

REUTERS

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