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Former coup leaders seen as top contenders in Fiji general election

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Former coup leaders seen as top contenders in Fiji general election
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By Alison Bevege

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Two former coup leaders are seen as the leading contenders in Fiji’s general election on Wednesday, the second to be held since 2006 when then-commander of the armed forces Frank Bainimarama seized power.

The former British colony of more than 300 Pacific islands, with a population of about 910,000, was suspended from the British Commonwealth and isolated diplomatically after the bloodless coup.

Bainimarama stood down from the military to run as a civilian in the country’s 2014 elections, winning in a landslide, and the country has been welcomed back to the international community, enjoying a visit in October from Britain’s Prince Harry and his wife Meghan.

Former prime minister Sitiveni Rabuka, who himself led two coups in 1987, is the main opposition candidate.

Rabuka, who leads the Social Democratic Liberal Party of Fiji, known as Sodelpa, which is running on a platform of government transparency, will not know until Monday afternoon whether he is eligible to be elected after being accused of deliberately breaching financial disclosure laws.

On Saturday he was questioned by police over an unrelated matter concerning a debate with Bainimarama about the National Bank of Fiji last Monday, Sodelpa general secretary Adi Qionibaravi told Reuters by telephone from Suva.

Qionibaravi said despite the setbacks, Sodelpa could beat Bainimarama’s FijiFirst party.

“We are very confident,” she said.

Stewart Firth, an Australian National University (ANU)Pacific Islands research fellow, said Bainimarama had the advantage of incumbency was likely to win.

Firth said Bainimarama had the support of about 80 percent of Fijians of Indian descent, who are the country’s largest minority, while Sodelpa is regarded as a pro-indigenous Fijian party.

The ANU researcher said there was a chance of a coup attempt if the opposition were to win an upset victory because the army supported Bainimarama, even though the military had promised to accept the result.

The elections will also be contested by the National Federation Party, the country’s third-largest party, led by economics professor Biman Prasad.

The NFP’s campaign manifesto says its priorities are a living wage for workers and farmers and lifting “the climate of fear that covers our country”.

Pre-poll voting ended Saturday afternoon ahead of a 48-hour media blackout that begins on Monday before the Nov. 14 general election.

(Reporting by Alison Bevege; editing by Eric Meijer)

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