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Friday, 24 August, 2001, 22:31 GMT 23:31 UK
Fiji poll hopes to restore democracy
Supporters of rebel leader George Speight
Mr Speight's men held Mr Chaudhry hostage for 56 days
By Phil Mercer in Sydney

Voters in Fiji are this week casting their votes in the most important election in the country's history.

They are choosing a new government to replace the democratic administration of Fiji's first ethnic Indian Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, which was deposed at gunpoint more than a year ago.

George Speight greets his brother and campaign manager Sam after a court hearing in Suva
Mr Speight will not be allowed out of prison to campaign
Eighteen parties and 351 candidates are contesting the election, the result of which is unlikely to be known before 6 September.

The aim of the poll is simple - to breathe new life into democracy in Fiji after the trauma inflicted by an armed coup last May.

Internal stability and rehabilitation in the eyes of an international community highly critical of the delays in restoring constitutional rule are at stake.

Complex process

The electoral process is complex and based on a preferential voting system in electorates drawn up on ethnic lines.

A British-style parliament of 71 seats will be chosen, with 23 seats reserved for indigenous Fijians, 19 for ethnic Indians, three for other racial groups, one for Rotuma Island and 25 open seats.

Mahendra Chaudhry casts his vote
Mr Chaudhry hopes to return to office

This is the second election under the country's multi-racial constitution and is similar to the preferential systems used in Australia and Nauru.

Polling lasts a week, allowing half a million voters spread over more than 300 islands to decide Fiji's immediate political future.

Violence fears

International observers, including the New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff, have warned there is a risk of violence towards the end of the long election process if extremist groups who supported last year's armed uprising do not accept the result of the poll.

On 19 May last year, nationalist gunmen led by George Speight hijacked the government and held Mr Chaudhry and members of his multi-racial cabinet hostage for 56 days.

On his release, Mr Chaudhry was out of a job. He had been replaced by an interim prime minister, Laisenia Qarase, installed as the unelected head of a military-backed government.

The army had moved to take control of the country after an explosion of anarchy during the hostage crisis.

Those at the heart of last year's upheaval are now squaring up on the ballot paper, with Mr Chaudhry facing challenges from Mr Speight, and Mr Qarase.

The hopefuls

George Speight is a candidate for the newly-formed nationalist Conservative Alliance party in his home province of Tailevu, which was a stronghold of support during his takeover of parliament.

The largely mountainous and forested area is strongly anti-Indian, has strong Melanesian roots and historically has fought against the mainly Polynesian leadership of Fiji.

Rebel gunman
Fiji hopes to put the coup behind it
Under Fijian law, the failed businessman can stand in the election but would lose his seat if he were to be convicted of a crime.

Mr Speight is facing charges of treason with 12 co-defendants in the most serious criminal case ever seen in Fiji.

The charges carry the death penalty although sentences are generally commuted to life in prison.

As for Mr Chaudhry, he enters the poll in charge of a fractured Fiji Labour Party. Preparations for the election have been disrupted by serious splits in the party, but it is still expected to do well.

The country is desperate for stable and decisive leadership. Official tourism figures show visitor numbers down by 41% in the year after the coup.

The economy is in trouble too - it shrank by almost 10% and there are rising levels of unemployment and poverty.

The BBC's Amanda Woods
"The most important election in Fiji's history"
See also:

24 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Fiji treason trial adjourned until 2002
26 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
Fiji coup leader joins poll race
20 May 01 | Media reports
One year on: Fiji's fragile democracy
16 Nov 00 | Asia-Pacific
Chaudhry confident of popular support
28 Jul 00 | Asia-Pacific
Fiji's new order: Key players
03 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
Timeline: Fiji
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