WELLINGTON, New Zealand –
Fijians voted Wednesday in an election that pitted two former military coup leaders against each other at a time the nation is trying to recover from a severe economic downturn.
Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama is seeking to extend his 16-year hold on power.
He 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 — but by a reduced margin — in 2018.
Running against him is Sitiveni Rabuka, who led Fiji’s first military coup in 1987 and later served as an elected prime minister in the 1990s.
The Pacific nation of just under 1 million people relies on tourism. When COVID-19 first hit, the industry evaporated overnight and the nation’s economy crashed. The World Bank estimates the nation’s poverty rate is about 24%.
Fijian authorities said they had enlisted an extra 1,500 police to ensure voting went smoothly. Polls closed at 6 p.m. local time.
Initial results were expected late Wednesday, although a final outcome could take days, especially if no party wins an outright majority.
Asked by reporters about his chances of winning, Rabuka said he was “feeling great and getting better.”
But he added that Bainimarama might not accept a losing result, and might try to seek recourse through a court dispute process.
“I’m hoping for a flood of votes in our favor so that if he makes any attempt at going through that system, that course, it will be futile,” Rabuka said.
He said it was always difficult to dislodge an incumbent.
“They make the rules, we abide by them and any slip will result in our being questioned, investigated,” he told reporters. “That’s why we’ve been overcautious. Very, very cautious in the end.”
Bainimarama did not appear to be in the mood to answer questions from reporters. One asked him if he would respect the outcome if the vote went against him.
“Of course. Where do you come from? Where you come from?” Bainimarama responded, with the reporter replying “Australia.”
“Haven’t they got any intelligent reporters from Australia to come and ask me better questions than that?” Bainimarama responded, before brushing off other questions.