Polls opened in Fiji Wednesday in a high-stakes election contest between two ex-military coup leaders that is being seen as a test of the country’s democracy and of China’s quest for Pacific influence.
Incumbent Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, 68, led a putsch to seize control of Fiji in 2006 and has since legitimised his grip on power with election wins in 2014 and 2018.
His quest for another elected term faces a major obstacle in the form of his great political rival Sitiveni Rabuka, a 74-year-old former military commander nicknamed “Rambo” after leading two coups in 1987.
The buildup to the vote has been marked by a strict media blackout, preventing reporting on any aspect of the election for 48 hours before voting day and until polls close.
Voter Avinay Kumar, 26, said there was a palpable feeling of tension in the capital Suva as the vote loomed.
“It’s a bit tense at the moment because the older parties and the new parties are clashing into each other,” he told AFP.
Voters at one Suva booth fanned themselves with blue election booklets and sought out trees for shade while queuing to cast their ballots.
Rabuka, a former Fijian international rugby player and Commonwealth Games hammer thrower, served as Fiji’s prime minister between 1992 and 1999.
“I’m feeling great and getting better. But victory belongs to the lord,” Rabuka told reporters after casting his vote at a makeshift polling booth in the capital, Suva.
Rabuka has signalled Fiji could pivot away from China under his leadership, saying it was time for Fiji to “reassess our associations” while explicitly ruling out a security pact with Beijing.
Fiji has grown closer to China under Bainimarama, who used a “look north” policy to stabilise the economy after Australia and New Zealand hit the country with heavy trade sanctions in retaliation for his 2006 coup.
Bainimarama was expected to cast his vote in Suva later on Wednesday at an inner-city school — one of 1,436 polling stations across the country.
In recent years, Bainimarama has switched his fatigues for suits and colourful bula shirts and focused heavily on Fiji’s fight against climate change — an existential issue for the low-lying nation.
The military’s role could yet be key in a tightly contested vote: commanding officer Major General Jone Kalouniwai has insisted his forces will “honour the democratic process by respecting the outcome”.
Ahead of election day, the 97-person-strong Multinational Observer Group said it had been given “full access” to election sites and had not “observed any irregularities” in registration or pre-polling.
‘It is prohibited’
While Bainimarama has billed the contest as Fiji’s most crucial vote “ever”, it was almost impossible to tell on the oppressively humid streets of Suva that an election was at hand.
Fiji has been purged of political billboards and campaign adverts have been erased from the airwaves under strict blackout laws meant to preserve the integrity of the election.
On election day, Suva’s distinctive open-air buses blasted reggae and dance music over the radio instead of once-ubiquitous campaign advertisements.
Campaign blackouts are not unusual internationally, but Fiji’s laws are notably harsh.
The government must approve all election-related local media coverage during the blackout — which started on 10 December and ends at 6:00 pm local time (0600 GMT) on Wednesday — and breaches can result in up to five years in prison.
“It is prohibited for any media organisation to publish, print or broadcast any campaign advertisement, debate, opinion or interview on any election issue,” Supervisor of Elections Mohammed Saneem told reporters in the lead-up to the poll.
Political parties have also been banned from enticing voters with offers of kava near campaign booths. The bitter drink is imbued with immense cultural significance and mildly intoxicating properties.