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Fiji PM predicts big poll win on eve of vote count

Written by: Staff

NADI, Fiji, May 14 : Fiji Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase today predicted he would be returned to office with an outright majority as officials prepared to begin counting after Fiji's chaotic, racially charged election.

Qarase's pro-indigenous Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (United Fiji Party, or SDL), won 32 seats in the 71-seat parliament and needed the help of minor parties to take power in 2001, a year after he was installed as caretaker by the military.

Qarase said a strong turnout by indigenous Fijian voters and a drop in ballots cast by ethnic Indians would help his party win government outright, possibly by as many as six seats.

''I am very confident that we will win. My projection is 42 seats, that's a very comfortable majority,'' Qarase told Reuters.

''There has been a high Fijian turn-out and a lower Indian turn-out, both of those factors work to our advantage,'' he said.

Chaudhry won elections in 1999 to become Fiji's first ethnic Indian prime minister but was toppled a year later in a coup by armed nationalists launched in the name of indigenous rights. He believes his Fijian Labour Party can regain power.

''We are looking forward to good results for the party,'' Chaudhry told Fiji One television.

The battle between Qarase and Chaudhry highlighted a lingering racial divide in Fiji which has resulted in three coups and a bloody army mutiny in the former British colony since 1987.

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 the tension of the campaign, outspoken military chief Frank Bainimarama said before voting started that he would act against any candidate who incited racial hatred after Qarase suggested Fiji was not yet ready for an Indian leader.

A strong win for Qarase would ease fears that indigenous groups may again react badly if Chaudhry wins, but international observers and local media have urged both sides to accept the result, which election officials say could be known on Tuesday. ''We have the chance to improve our standing overseas and to rid ourselves of being labelled another unstable country in the Pacific,'' the Fiji Times said in an editorial today.

Voting closed yesterday, a week after the poll got off to a bad start when thousands of voters were forced to wait for hours in blazing tropical sun because of the late arrival of ballot boxes and papers.

Chaudhry last week complained to police about thousands of names missing from electoral rolls and the printing of thousands of extra ballot papers.

He told Reuters he believed the election was being systematically rigged in an attempt to disenfranchise ethnic Indian voters and to ensure that the SDL is returned.

Police are investigating Chaudhry's claims, which Qarase has brushed aside, but have said they have found no significant problems. International observers have also said they found no major irregularities.

Ballot boxes were being sent today by trucks, boats and planes from four electoral divisions covering Fiji's 320-odd islands to four central counting stations, where counting will begin early tomorrow.

Deeply religious Fiji was otherwise quiet as thousands attended church services today.

Police and the military will meet this week to discuss security arrangements but Police Commissioner Andrew Hughes has said he does not believe there is any need to boost security.

Early voter turnout figures suggested between 60-70 per cent of Fiji's roughly 470,000 voters had cast their ballots, well down from the 79 per cent in 2001 and 93 percent in 1999.


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