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Fiji vote tight with count in final stretch

#Fiji #vote #tight #count #final #stretch

Fiji’s tumultuous election was too close to call Saturday heading into the final stretch of counting, with a thin margin separating incumbent Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama from bitter rival Sitiveni Rabuka. 

Two-time coup leader and former prime minister Rabuka, 74, is challenging Bainimarama, 68, an ex-navy commodore who has won two elections since first seizing control of the island nation in a 2006 putsch. 

Rabuka’s People’s Alliance party and its coalition partner held a 45 to 42 percent lead over Bainimarama’s Fiji First on Saturday evening, with more than half the country’s 2,071 polling stations having submitted their results. 

But Bainimarama — who has been silent since votes were cast Wednesday — is widely expected to gain ground when booths in urbanised areas submit their tallies, with a final result anticipated by Sunday. 

Police summoned Rabuka for questioning late Friday after he repeatedly complained about “anomalies” in the results and asked the military to step in. 

People’s Alliance general-secretary Sakiasi Ditoka was also questioned.

Rabuka said Saturday he believed he had been summoned because of his request to the military, which has “overall” responsibility for maintaining stability under Fiji’s 2013 constitution. 

“They tried to paint a picture of a person, a high-profile person, making a statement like that — and how that would impact on the people,” he told reporters. 

Analyst Lucy Albiston from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute said all options were on the table for both sides as the final result loomed. 

“Depending on the results on Sunday, we may still see more calls questioning the electoral process or utilising the legal system in an attempt to hold on to a chance of power,” she told AFP. 

– Election ‘anomaly’ –

The aftermath of Wednesday’s poll has grown increasingly tense since an election night “anomaly” knocked results offline for four hours. 

Opposition parties led by Rabuka have said the incident cast doubt on the entire election process and that counting should be stopped immediately. 

“In view of the substantial breach of counting, we demand an immediate cessation of the current electoral process and to be replaced with a fresh manual count of all votes,” Rabuka told the country’s election supervisor in a letter written Thursday and released on Saturday. 

Rabuka’s hopes of stopping the count faded on Friday, however, when military commander Jone Kalouniwai rebuffed his plea for the army to get involved. 

The answer was “no”, Rabuka said, “he will not be drawn into it”.

Fiji Labour Party leader Mahendra Chaudhry — a former prime minister — on Saturday repeated claims that the election had been undermined by voter fraud. 

Election supervisor Mohammed Saneem hit back, saying Chaudhry had provided no evidence.

“Mr Chaudhry has made a grand claim about voter fraud,” he told reporters at the national vote centre.

“This is serious ladies and gentlemen. Step up with the evidence.”

International observers have expressed no concerns about the conduct or counting of the vote. 

Rebekha Sharkie, an election observer and Australian member of parliament, said no “significant irregularities or issues” had been recorded during pre-polling, postal voting or the casting of ballots on election day.

While the vote is seen as a test of Fiji’s often-fragile democracy, there is a regional significance as well — Bainimarama has been close to China, while Rabuka is likely to distance himself from Beijing. 

Four Fijian prime ministers have been toppled by coups in the past 35 years. 

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