Former coup leaders battle for control in Fiji election

SUVA, Fiji — Two men who led different military coups in Fiji are battling for control of the island nation in a general election on Wednesday.

Opinion polls indicate Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama is poised to win a second term after he first held democratic elections in 2014, eight years after he seized power in a coup.

His main opponent is Sitiveni Rabuka, who led two military coups in the 1980s before serving for seven years as prime minister. Just this week, a judge cleared Rabuka of an electoral disclosure violation in a case many viewed as being politically motivated.

Fiji has not allowed the political tensions to affect its vital tourism industry, which promotes the Pacific nation's pristine, sunny beaches and friendly, welcoming people.

Given the history of coups, political stability has been a big issue leading up to the election, as have racial tensions and economic issues.

"Bainimarama does look set to secure his second victory at the polls and has already led the country for 13 years through a period of relative stability," said Jonathan Pryke, the director of the Pacific Islands Program at the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank.

Many people in the nation of 920,000 seem appreciative of the economic gains they've made under Bainimarama.

"There are no school fees. Before, I paid a couple hundred for school fees," said Mere Rigamoto, a 42-year-old mother of three boys. "Bainimarama's government is not bad. He's OK."

But Bainimarama has a troubled political history that has contributed to the coup culture. There are rumors he could stage another coup should he lose the election.

"We're bound to have another coup if he doesn't win," said 30-year-old Robert Lum On, a recent university graduate.

Fiji became independent from the U.K. in 1970. In 1987, Rabuka staged two racially charged coups to return the country to the hands of indigenous Fijians, called "iTaukei," and away from Fijians of Indian descent, or Indo-Fijians.

iTaukei make up about 57 percent of the country's population, while Indo-Fijians make up 38 percent.

Indo-Fijians have been a major ethnic group in Fiji since colonial times, when the British brought them in to work the sugar cane plantations. Many Indo-Fijians favor Bainimarama, whose new constitution in 2013 removed race quotas from parliament.

"Bainimarama's key success has been to establish the name 'Fijian' for all citizens of Fiji," said Richard Herr, a professor at Fiji National University who is based in Australia. "His legislation has made campaigning on race, or even having a racially based party, illegal."

On the campaign trail, Bainimarama accused Rabuka of stoking the flames of racism that continue to divide the nation. But some indigenous Fijians believe Rabuka will help restore their prestige, and favor his promise to bring back the nation's Great Council of Chiefs, which Bainimarama disbanded.

Critics deride Bainimarama as authoritarian, but since forcing himself into power he has refashioned his image into that of a stable, legitimate leader.

His appeal was bolstered when he assumed the U.N. COP23 presidency in November 2017. In that role, which he holds until December, he shaped Fiji into a pioneer on climate change issues.

With COP23 as a platform, Fiji inserted small island developing states into the international conversation on climate change. The islands are on the front lines of global warming, rising sea levels, and ocean acidification.

After the 2006 coup, Australia and New Zealand imposed sanctions on Fiji, and Bainimarama reoriented regional alliances toward China. His critics accuse him of selling out the country to the Chinese.

The Lowy Institute says Fiji received about $360 million in aid from China between 2006 and 2016, putting it behind only Papua New Guinea in the Pacific region. China Exim Bank holds 39 percent of Fiji's externally held public debt, according to The Economist Intelligence Unit.

Fiji's relations have since normalized with Australia and New Zealand, but the period of sanctions enabled China to step up its regional influence.

Fiji has one of the healthiest economies of the Pacific Islands, and GDP is predicted to grow above 3 percent annually through 2020. Tourism is the bedrock of the economy, accounting for more than 40 percent of GDP.

Bainimarama's government takes credit for increasing social services, including free primary and secondary education, free bus fares for seniors, and aid in the aftermath of cyclones.

But widespread poverty persists. Bainimarama's opponents have vowed to raise the minimum wage, which remains only about $1.25 per hour.

Although the coup culture can't be erased, many argue that Fiji has stabilized under Bainimarama.

"His prime ministership to date has been marked with a steady movement back towards democracy," said Pryke, of the Lowy Institute.

"While there is still more work to do — domestic media is engaged in significant self-censorship and opposition parties remain harassed — the prime minister has delivered on political stability that has enabled economic growth and development progress to be prioritized."

Polls close at 6 p.m. Wednesday (0500 GMT). As well as Bainimarama's FijiFirst party and Rabuka's Social Democratic Liberal Party (Sodelpa), the National Federation Party (NFP) is also expected to be an election contender. In 2014, FijiFirst won 59 percent of votes, Sodelpa won 28 percent, and NFP won 5.5 percent.


Nick Perry in Wellington, New Zealand, contributed to this report.

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