Fijians vote for the first time in over 8 years

DISCONTENT: Protests against Frank Bainimarama in Auckland in August included burning flags.

DISCONTENT: Protests against Frank Bainimarama in Auckland in August included burning flags.

For the first time in eight and a half years, nearly 600,000 Fijians are voting in a democracy-restoring general election.

Early voting before the September 17 elections began today in venues around the archipelago, including army bases and prisons.

But the long wait for democracy's return coincides with the capture of 45 Fijian peacekeepers by an al Qaeda-linked group in civil war-racked Syria.

They are all new soldiers without peacekeeping experience. The military says they have been affected by seeing people being beheaded near their base.

Pre-poll voters are confronted with a big sheet of paper containing numbers beginning from 135 and up to 382. Each number relates to the 247 people running in the elections.

Military strongman Frank Bainimarama, who ended democracy with a coup in 2006 and who devised the voting system, is No 279.

Each political party, from Bainimarama's Fiji First to the rival Social Democratic Liberal Party led by Teimumu Kepa (317), is furiously promoting numbers as voters are not allowed to take campaign material into the voting booth.

People can vote for only one candidate in the open-list proportional representation system.

Bainimarama says he expects to win all 50 seats in the new Legislative Assembly.

Fiji held its last election in March 2006. In December that year, Bainimarama launched a military coup and put Fiji under military rule.

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So all-encompassing was his rule that even traditional elections for chiefly titles and religious meetings were banned.

Among the first places to vote today is the Republic of Fiji Military Forces (RFMF) Delta Company base in Nadi.

Its voters are likely to include soldiers being quickly moved to the Middle East to replace the 45 soldiers captured by the al Nusra group in Syria.

Part of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) on the Syrian-Israeli border, they were captured last week, while a unit of Filipinos fought their way to freedom.

State-owned Fiji Broadcasting reported today that the situation was unchanged, with the soldiers being held in an unknown location in Syria.

RFMF commander General Mosese Tikoitoga said a specialist negotiation team from New Zealand was in the area trying to win the release of the men.

RFMF is fending off mounting criticism over the way the soldiers were captured while Filipino peacekeepers fought their way out.

A contrast has been drawn with what happened to the Fiji Battalion serving in Lebanon in the 1980s. At one point eight Fijians were captured by a religious group and were rescued by their commander, Sitiveni Rabuka, who eventually returned home and staged Fiji's first two coups.

Tikoitoga told Fijilive that the latest situation could not be compared with other operations.

"There's a mixture of old soldiers and new soldiers. In every peacekeeping missions we go to, we take new soldiers as well," he said.

"It is the first that's happened to us and I'm sure people make comparisons to Lebanon, Iraq and to other areas that we have operated in, but I must say that Syria is totally different from all those areas."

Lebanon had different armed elements.

"In Lebanon we don't see anyone beheading people, but here you see armed elements beheading people wherever and whenever they want," he said.

"These Fijian soldiers watch armed elements behead people beside their gate. That would have weakened anybody with the right mind."

Families of the missing men attended a service in Suva yesterday.

"I love him so much and I am strong knowing that he is stronger on the other side," Nia Waqavonovono told the Fiji Times of her husband, Able Seaman Ilitomasi Nawalu Waqavonovono.

"If he comes back home losing a limb, I will always be there for him. I'll carry on what I gave him as a promise on our wedding day four years ago."

Like many at the service, she was in tears as she lit a candle for her husband.

"Ever since it happened last week, I never cried," she said.

"I had hope. I felt that he was all right."

All the captured soldiers are indigenous Fijians, but about 200 people attended a Hindu puja ceremony to also pray.

Swami Sanyuktanand said they will be having similar prayer ceremonies in the coming days for the Fijian peacekeepers at their 43 centres around the country, and people from all faiths could take part.


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