Fiji observers say election was free after 5 parties protest

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Sitiveni Rabuka

Sitiveni Rabuka, who led the first coup back in 1987 and later served as an elected prime minister in the 1990s, shows a photograph of alleged voting irregularities after Fijian election provisional results were released in Suva, Fiji, Friday, Dec. 16, 2022. An international group that monitored Fiji’s general election this week say they didn’t observe any voting irregularities and the process was transparent and credible. (Mick Tsikas/AAP Image via AP)

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — An international group that monitored Fiji’s general election this week said Friday it didn’t observe any voting irregularities and the process was transparent and credible.

The group’s comments came after five of the political parties that contested the election said they were launching a nationwide petition because they had no faith in the integrity of election officials.

The election dispute threatens to destabilize the Pacific nation’s fragile democracy, which has been marred by four military coups in the past 35 years. This year’s election has pitted two former coup leaders against each other.

Sitiveni Rabuka, who led the first coup back in 1987 and later served as an elected prime minister in the 1990s, emerged as the main challenger to Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, who has held power for the past 16 years.

Rebekha Sharkie, an Australian lawmaker and co-chair of the 90-strong Multinational Observer Group, told reporters in Fiji that the group had unrestricted access to observe key elements of the election.

“The MOG did not observe any significant irregularities or issues during pre-polling, postal voting or election-day voting,” Sharkie said. “The MOG assesses that Fijian voters were able to exercise their right to vote freely.”

She said Fijian election officials were “well prepared to deliver a transparent and credible electoral process in a professional manner.”

Sharkie’s comments came soon after Rabuka and several other party leaders held a second press conference in as many days to outline their concerns about the election.

Rabuka said they were launching the petition because election officials had declined their earlier request to halt vote-counting until a forensic audit of the election system was conducted.

“We’re going to the people of Fiji and asking them to lend their support to our calls for a free and fair count,” Rabuka said. “We believe enough is enough.”

Rabuka’s concerns came after his People’s Alliance Party had been leading in preliminary results posted online after polls closed, but then the results app stopped working.

Election officials said they’d found an anomaly in the system and needed to reload the results. When the next batch of results was posted, Bainimarama’s Fiji First party was solidly in front.

Election officials later stopped their provisional count and switched to a final count.

On Friday evening, with about a quarter of the polling stations tallied toward the final count, Rabuka’s party had retaken the lead. Final results aren’t expected for a couple more days.

Bainimarama first seized the top job by force in 2006 and later refashioned himself as a democratic leader by introducing a new constitution and winning elections in 2014 and again in 2018.

Before this year’s election, Fijian authorities enlisted an extra 1,500 police to ensure voting went smoothly.

Fiji is known abroad as a tourist paradise that is dotted with pristine beaches and filled with friendly, relaxed people.

However, the past few years have proved tough for many people in the nation of just under 1 million, after tourism evaporated when COVID-19 hit and the economy tanked. The World Bank estimates the nation’s poverty rate is about 24%.

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