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Counting starts in racially-charged Fiji poll

Written by: Staff

Suva, May 15 : Counting began today after Fiji's chaotic, week-long election, with Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase confident he would win an outright majority.

Election officials in the capital, Suva, said early counting was smooth as ballot boxes arrived by truck, boat and plane from village electorates in the South Pacific island chain.

''There have been no problems. They (ballot boxes) are rolling in,'' said an official at the main counting centre at Suva's Grammar School.

Elections Supervisor Semesa Karavaki says a final count could be available by late tomorrow.

''I am very confident that we will win,'' Qarase told Reuters yesterday, predicting his party would win 42 of the 71 seats in parliament.

Fiji's election has been run in a racially charged climate with indigenous Fijians, like Qarase, again worried that the country's ethnic Indian Fijians may gain government.

Indigenous Fijians make up 51 per cent of the 906,000 population and fear the economic clout of ethnic Indians, who dominate the economy, will be matched by political power.

Qarase has said Fiji, which has been rocked by three racially motivated coups and an army mutiny since 1987, is still not ready for an ethnic Indian leader.

Mahendra Chaudhry, the country's first ethnic Indian prime minister who was ousted in a 2000 coup, has charged Qarase with stirring up racism in the former British colony.

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.

International observers and local media have urged both sides to accept the result.

Qarase was installed as interim leader when the military declared martial law in a bid to end the May 2000 coup which toppled Chaudhry's year-old government. He went on to win the 2001 election.

In 2001, Qarase's 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 with 37 seats, a majority of one.

Chaudhry's Fiji Labour Party won 28 seats in 2001.


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