Growing race tensions dominate Fiji elections

FIJI’S prime minister clashed with the military on the eve of a racially charged election in the unstable South Pacific nation after the armed forces chief urged his troops yesterday not to vote for the government.

Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase’s uneasy relationship with military chief Frank Bainimarama has added to election tensions in a county which has suffered three racially-motivated coups and a mutiny since 1987.

Bainimarama accuses Qarase of being soft on the leaders of a 2000 coup which ultimately led to Qarase’s indigenous Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL) party gaining power at the last elections in 2001.

He has also warned him not to incite racial hatred between indigenous Fijians, who make up 51% of the 906,000 population, and ethnic Indians who dominate the economy.

Bainimarama accused the government of planning to cut the size of Fiji’s military after the May 6-13 election.

Bainimarama told Fiji TV.

Qarase described local media reports about possible defence cuts as “deliberate misinformation”.

“It could even be part of a politically-inspired campaign to influence voters on the eve of the election,” he told reporters.

Race remains the central issue of the poll battle between Qarase and his ethnic Indian challenger, Mahendra Chaudhry, after Qarase said he does not believe Fiji is ready for a non-indigenous leader.

International observers expressed concern over the military’s campaign role.

“I don’t think it’s a wise thing for this country,” EU election observer Istvan Szent-Ivanyi said.

Chaudhry won elections in 1999 but his multiracial government fell after nationalist gunmen, led by failed businessman George Speight, stormed the parliament in the name of indigenous rights in May 2000.

Bainimarama declared martial law and installed Qarase as interim leader before the SDL head won free elections in 2001.

Vote counting begins on May 15 and takes four days.

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