Fiji national election a tight race in early provisional counting

  • PM's Fiji First party nudges ahead as counting continues
  • It is Fiji's third democratic election since 2006 coup
  • Counting briefly halted amid results app "error"
  • Government critics decry tough media law

SYDNEY, Dec 14 (Reuters) - Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama's Fiji First nudged ahead of the main opposition party, according to partial results from the Pacific island nation's election office following Wednesday's national vote.

Voter turnout in the third democratic election since Bainimarama came to power in a 2006 coup was less than 60%, which analysts said was the lowest in a decade.

His Fiji First party had attracted 44.87% of votes as of 2 a.m. on Thursday morning, ahead of the People's Alliance Party on 34.26%, provisional results showed, with 531 of 2,071 polling stations counted.

Bainimarama is in a tight race against another former coup leader and one-time prime minister, Sitiveni Rabuka, whose People's Alliance Party has formed a coalition with Fiji's oldest political party, the National Federation Party.

Bainimarama has a high international profile for climate change advocacy and chaired the Pacific Islands Forum, the regional diplomatic bloc, as it sought this year to manage rising security tensions between the United States and China.

The election office said result updates were put "temporarily on hold" shortly before 11 p.m., and later said its election results app, used by the public, had errors.

Fiji has a proportional representation system, where there is a single constituency.

Before the app was taken down, it showed People's Alliance candidate Peceli Vosanibola attracting the most votes, ahead of Bainimarama and Rabuka.

However, the Supervisor of Elections told media this was an error because Vosanibola had recorded only 63 votes in its results system.

The app went back online early on Thursday morning, showing Bainimarama's personal vote at 30.63% and Rabuka at 17.3%.

The National Federation Party, Rabuka's coalition partner, had 9.28% of votes.


Fiji's Attorney General and Fiji First general secretary Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum wrote on Facebook: "Vote tallying isn't a sprint - it's a marathon. The only numbers that matter are the final results."

Shailendra Singh, a political commentator and associate professor of Pacific journalism at the University of South Pacific in Fiji, said the voter turnout was the lowest since Fiji's constitution was reformed in 2013. The rising cost of living and the economy were major issues for voters, he said.

Bainimarama's Fiji First supporters campaigned on stability and progress, while the opposition said national debt was too high and questioned the state of democracy, he said.

"Critics of Fiji First feel that this one party has been in power for too long and maybe it's time for a change," Singh told Reuters in a telephone interview.

Concerns expressed by opposition parties and civil society groups about media self-censorship caused by a punitive media law continued at this election, he said.

"The nature of democracy has been under question for some time - not all democracies are perfect and Fiji is trying, this is part of Fiji's journey of moving to a more democratic system," Singh said.

Fiji's government has rejected criticism by opposition parties about the media law.

A multinational observer group led by Australia, India and Indonesia includes 90 election observers who are also monitoring the national vote counting centre.

Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Michael Perry, Tom Hogue, Arun Koyyur and Gareth Jones

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