By Karishma Luthria
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Fijians went to the polls on Wednesday for only the second time since a 2006 coup, with former military strongman Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama confident of winning a second term even as heavy rain and flooding meant some voting was delayed.
Bainimarama, who leads the Fiji First party, seized power in the bloodless 2006 coup that resulted in the former British colony being suspended from the Commonwealth and isolated diplomatically.
He stood down from the military to run as a civilian in Fiji’s 2014 elections, winning in a landslide. His main opponent this time is Sitiveni Rabuka, another former military leader who staged two coups in 1987.
The nation of more than 300 South Pacific islands has been welcomed back to the international community since the 2006 coup and subsequent election and even enjoyed a visit from Britain’s Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, in October.
Torrential rain greeted voters on Wednesday and Elections Supervisor Mohammed Saneem said polling booths in some areas had to be relocated or voting rescheduled to a later date because of the weather.
Nearly 8,000 voters were affected in the nation of roughly 910,000 people, with 26 polling booths at 23 venues closed, Saneem said in a Facebook post.
“I would like to extend sincere gratitude to all those voters who braved the weather and came out to vote to exercise their constitutional right,” he said.
An election blackout remained in place for domestic media until all polling places reported. It was unclear what effect that would have on announcing election results that were expected later on Wednesday.
Rabuka, himself a former long-serving prime minister who leads the Social Democratic Liberal Party of Fiji, was cleared on Monday of charges related to breaching financial disclosure laws, enabling him to contest the election.
The elections were also contested by the National Federation Party (NFP), Fiji’s third-largest party led by economics professor Biman Prasad.
The manifesto of the NFP, which has its base in Fiji’s economically powerful Indian ethnic minority, says its priorities are a living wage for workers and farmers and lifting “the climate of fear that covers our country”.
Jonathan Pryke of the Lowy Institute in Sydney said Bainimarama’s government had done better than many of its critics expected and had reason to be confident of re-election. He said Fiji’s economy had grown at an average of 3.6 percent over the past five years and standards of living had risen.
“These elections are significant, not only for determining who will govern the Pacific’s second-largest and most developed country for the next five years, but in demonstrating where Fiji sits on its slow path back towards full and open democracy,” Pryke said in a pre-election report.
(Reporting by Karishma Luthria; Editing by Paul Tait)